Cannabis users are not more likely to be lazy, says Cambridge Uni study

4 mins
02 Sep 2022
Cannabis users are not more likely to be lazy, says Cambridge Uni study

The findings debunk commonly-held beliefs about drug use

image Rob Warner on Unsplash

words Megan Wallace

"When people become weed-heads, they become sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned." So goes the refrain of Frank Ocean's “Be Yourself” and the iconic answering machine message left by Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Ocean’s childhood friends. But while the monologue's inclusion in the musician's 2016 album Blonde is probably meant to be ironic, the sentiments Watson expresses in the track’s minute-and-a-half runtime are reflected verbatim in the wider culture.

Need some proof? Well, the pop cultures examples speak for themselves, really, regardless of the decade. Whether it’s Stranger Things’ Argyle in the current day, Broad City’s Ilana in the 2010s, Mean Girls’ “burnouts” in the 2000s, or even Clueless’s stoner-slacker Travis in the 90s, pot enthusiasts might be portrayed as funny or good-natured, but they’re rarely depicted as being career-orientated and certainly never as the top of their class. Back in the 2000s, there was even a whole genre of “stoner slacker” comedies like Pineapple Express and the Harold & Kumar series which revelled in the image of pot fans as stupefied, dazed and not at all engaged with the real world.

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Recent scientific findings, however, remind us that sometimes fantasy and reality really don’t match up: the preconceptions that stoners are lazy, unmotivated and just don’t enjoy their lives may well be a fiction. Specifically, the Cambridge University neuroscientist and researcher Martine Skumlien has headed up two recent academic studies looking at apathy and anhedonia (loss of pleasure) and reward anticipation and feedback in relation to cannabis use in adults and adolescents.

One in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology focuses on levels of apathy and anhedonia among weed smokers and non-weed smokers in 274 people in two different age groups: 26 - 29 and 16 - 17. Also tested were weed smokers’ capacity for effort-based decision-making in exchange for reward and the level to which those involved in the study wanted and liked rewards.

For the "420, blaze it" set, keep the results handy for your next family argument; there were no significant discrepancies between cannabis users and the control group, besides the fact that the control group actually had slightly higher levels of anhedonia. The study concludes that cannabis use; “is not associated with apathy, effort-based decision-making for reward, reward wanting, or reward liking in adults or adolescents.”

While that study used questionnaires and behavioural tasks to explore the potential impacts of cannabis on individuals’ outlooks, earlier research, published in April used MRI scans and tasks to examine the neural responses of 70 adult and adolescent cannabis users and 70 adult and adolescent non-cannabis users in response to reward anticipation. And despite the differing methods, the results also challenged prevailing ideas about cannabis use — specifically that it might reduce an individual’s capacity to be motivated or ambitious. Despite the cultural preconception that stoners are lazy and not motivated, the results suggest that weed smokers actually no different to non-weed smokers when it comes to motivation, with the study concluding that; “reward anticipation and feedback processing in key reward regions are unaffected by cannabis use.”

Obviously, we’re all for myth-busting and reducing some of the harmful stigmas around recreational drug-use. However, since when was being ambitious or productive the be-all and end-all? Surely the past few years and the subsequent proliferation of buzzwords like “quiet quitting” or “the Great Resignation” have shown us that fewer and fewer people are willing to max out our work boundaries and become the ultimate worker bee. Whether or not weed makes us less ambitious surely doesn't matter when we're all realising that ambition in a capitalist system isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Of much greater concern than whether weed might make you stop jostling for the 2% pay rise your workplace is giving in exchange for ten-hour-days? The potential health drawbacks associated with any unregulated substance. Not to get all boring, but it’s worth noting that both studies define “moderate” cannabis use as smoking 3 to 4 days per week, rather than every single day. For individuals who have a more serious weed habit, such as smoking every morning or multiple times a day, there is no guarantee that negative brain or behavioural changes won’t develop — so be warned. And even if cannabis is considered a less “serious” substance than others, problems with psychological addiction, lung illnesses and mental illnesses like anxiety and psychosis may be more likely among some frequent cannabis users.

If you think you have a problem with weed or other drugs, you can head to the Talk to Frank website to find drug support services in your local area.

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