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Why cannabis moderation is so hard for so many

Whether you are new to cannabis and wanting to keep your minimal use in check, or a multiple times per day consumer who wants to cut down or stop all together, here are three reasons why it might be tougher than just setting an intention.
Written by
Dr. Amanda Reiman
February 20, 2024

According to the 2023 Cannabis Consumer Survey from New Frontier Data, 31% of cannabis consumers use cannabis multiple times per day. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 17% of adults binge drink (defined as 15 or more drinks per week for men and 8 or more drinks per week for women). We recently discussed the differences between cannabis and alcohol, especially related to how they are regulated. Two of the main differences are the safety profile of cannabis and the use of cannabis as a medicine. But safety and medicinal value aside, one third of cannabis consumers are using it multiple times per day, clearly declaring it a habit. Now, not all habits are dangerous and some (like flossing) are beneficial, but cutting down on cannabis is tough for a lot of people, myself included. Thirty seven percent of consumers say that their consumption has increased in the past year, and this is most often reported by those 18-34. 

Last year, after being a multiple times per day cannabis consumer for about 20 years, I took a month off. Mostly, I wanted to see what would happen to me (I am a scientist after all and love to experiment!) and if taking a month off would disrupt my cannabis habit. I will be honest, at first it was tough. While cannabis withdrawals are not on par with those from heroin, alcohol or many prescription drugs, they exist. After the withdrawals subsided, I examined how my life felt without cannabis, and after a few weeks, it felt surprisingly normal, especially given that using cannabis was something I did multiple times per day. In the last year, I have mostly used once to three times per day, and I did give up smoking as a method of consumption in favor of a dry flower vaporizer. But, as the year was coming to a close, I noticed my pattern of use begin to tick up again. This was paired with increasing tolerance, which had fallen significantly after my one month break. So, in the interest of experimentation, I decided to take a 3 month break this year to really examine why cannabis moderation is a struggle, and why the habit seems to creep back in. And it wasn’t just cannabis I gave up for 3 months, I am also avoiding TV and scrolling social media. Why? We’ll get to that in a minute, but it has to do with breaking patterns of needing to feed my boredom and alleviate discomfort, something I think we can all relate to.

So whether you are new to cannabis and wanting to keep your minimal use in check, or a multiple times per day consumer who wants to cut down or stop all together, here are three reasons why it might be tougher than just setting an intention.

Scarcity mindset in a world of abundance

I recently listened to an interesting podcast about the scarcity mindset (thanks for the recommendation Jazmin Hupp!) The discussion revolved around our ancient brains and the ways we are wired to survive. Food, things and status were all commodities that helped us stay alive in times when these things were scarce. Food obviously kept our bodies going so we could travel, build and hunt. Things were tools that allowed us to build what we needed and provide us the necessary comforts and protections against illness and the elements. Status meant that you had people willing to work for you and stand by you in battle. These prizes used to be scarce, and our brains were trained to seek them out and collect them as a means of survival. Fast forward to 2024. Food is available at the touch of a DoorDash button. Things are always ready to be bought on Amazon, many times arriving the next day. Social media conditions us to value status, but according to their definition, status equals likes, reshares and followers. The problem is, our brains are still operating like its 1024, which leads to the overconsumption of food, things and status. So what does this have to do with cannabis? Before legalization, hunting cannabis was like hunting food in the early years of civilization. Getting it was not assured, and often out of your control. There was risk involved, and a multi-step process to achieve success. Once you did achieve your goal, you savored the product because there was no assurance of when you could get more. In many ways, consumption was more mindful because of this. Saving cannabis for special occasions was common, and deciding not to have any more because you didn’t want to waste it was also. And while I wholeheartedly support cannabis legalization, the emergence of the legal market has created a similar situation for our scarcity trained brains as food, things and status. We can always get more cannabis, we just need to go to a store, or in some cases, push a button on our smart phone. And while the price of cannabis is a barrier for some, there are always stores with killer deals. Just like food, things and status, cannabis acquisition has become so easy, but our brains still treat it like a rare but important find, wanting as much as we can get our hands on and as much as we can get into our bodies. 

Regular use does not always mean negative consequences

Even though one third of cannabis consumers use multiple times per day, only 19% say they want to cut back on their use. Among those who used to consume but no longer do, 37% said they just simply did not like the feeling of being high, and 16% and 14% respectively said it interfered with professional or personal relationships. This means that for many consumers, cannabis is not presenting any negative consequences in their life. When looking at how we define “addiction”, negative consequences, including problems at work, at home and unsafe use are a part of the addiction universe. The lack of these consequences for regular cannabis consumers is why a new designation “Cannabis Use Disorder” was brought into play about a decade ago. This term includes the negative consequences described above, but also cravings, using more than intended, unsuccessful attempts to reduce use, and increased tolerance. These are characteristics common with long term regular use, although few consumers would include them as indicators of addiction, but more as consequences they are willing to live with. Afterall, many long term behaviors have similar consequences. Exercise for example, considered to be a healthy habit and recommended as a long term practice, requires more intensity over time to get the same effect, can be overdone resulting in injury, and can cause the “user” to forgo other activities and relationships for the purpose of getting their workout in. Interestingly, the intensity of use needed to get the same effect peaks and then slowly goes down for both cannabis and exercise as we age. The point being that when someone starts drinking heavily, the consequences are usually negative enough to garner intervention, either from self or loved ones. But the high functioning embodied by experienced cannabis consumers and the ways in which they seamlessly incorporate it into their lives make them more akin to regular consumers of coffee than alcohol. This is especially true for medical consumers whose goal may in fact be a level of tolerance where intoxication is no longer part of the effect. Without notable negative consequences, reasons for moderation or cutting down are not as pressing. 

The quest to alleviate boredom and discomfort

Now, back to my own little experiment. The reason I decided to pair abstinence from cannabis with that from TV and scrolling social media, is that I realized all three, while posing no immediate threat to my health, were my tools for avoidance. My entire life, boredom and the need for distraction have been issues. Maybe it’s because my brain is constantly in high gear, or because I’ve never been a huge fan of “feeling the feels”, but cannabis came into my life at a time when I was feeling pretty low. This feeling stemmed from not living up to expectations I and my family had set for me, and without giving you my entire life story, cannabis made me feel ok about it. I realize now, that what it was really doing was helping me escape from it. And, I will defend the use of cannabis to feel better about things that make you feel not so great. Sometimes being distracted from uncomfortable situations is helpful. Hospitals use video games to help kids get through medical treatments. These games do not erase the discomfort, but they make it manageable by providing a distraction. While cannabis did not make me suddenly live up to my own expectations, it made the experience tolerable. But, the line here is thin. When does it go from making the situation more tolerable to contributing to the situation not changing? That is an important question for regular consumers of cannabis to ask themselves. Is my use helping me relax and put work out of my mind? Or is my use keeping me from sitting with thoughts that, while uncomfortable, are things I need to work through to move forward? Back to my TV and social media break. I realized that, for me, the triad of cannabis, mindless TV and even more mindless social media scrolling was soothing, yes, but also doing a great job at keeping me from examining things in my life that need to be examined, even if that created discomfort. And, that being bored is sometimes the space where great ideas and motivations come from, so why shut it out? In a world that has no shortage of distractions and mindsucking activities, sometimes we need to shut it down and just feel the discomfort. Removing my triad of self medication has allowed me to do that, and I am better for it. What could it do for you?

The purpose of this article was not to suggest that regular cannabis consumers are all in need of an intervention. Personally, I know dozens of folks who are high achieving, socially competent, and personally responsible, who also have incorporated cannabis into their lives as many do coffee. But, coffee can also keep you up if you drink it too late, make your heart race if you drink too much, make you pee, A LOT, and cause some serious withdrawals when you stop. The point being that just because something is not causing you obvious problems, does not mean your use and motivations should not be examined, or that mindfulness can take a back seat. Healthy, balanced relationships are what we should all strive for, and the practice of finding them can be as insightful and rewarding as the outcome.

Going to SXSW this year? This article was a taste of what I will be presenting at the festival. If you are in Austin, come by and say hi!

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