Are Pot Smokers Really Lazy? The Motivation Behind Amotivational Syndrome

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IMAGE: Still of Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

Talk of cannabis turning delighted taxpayers into lazy slugs abounds again.

I usually hear it on the radio after arising early to write, hitting the exercise bike, teaching two classes, enduring a faculty meeting, arranging for one daughter to get to gymnastics and the other to dance, and heading toward the grocery store to get something to cook for dinner.

I guess I should be happy – if prohibitionists are resorting to this tired, old, argument, we really must be kicking ass. But I have lost my patience with this unverified bit of claptrap, and find myself screaming at the radio.

Michael Phelps: Lazy?

Michael Phelps: Lazy?

Guess what: there’s no amotivational syndrome. None. Zero. And even if there was, I’m unclear how many people we’d have to throw in jail as a result. If we really cared about activities interfering with productivity, we might want to rethink clogging the court system with people busted for possession, but that’s another issue. And don’t get me started on the motivational effects of television.

The whole idea of cannabis making people into indolent sloths started over 100 years ago. People who used cannabis weren’t acting the way that other people thought that they should (IHDC, 1894; Yes, 1894!).

Seventy years later, a few psychiatrists met adolescents who wouldn’t behave (no kidding!) who also loved the plant. That’s right, some teenagers showed depressed mood, poor hygiene, a loss of energy, and a distinct lack of interest in sitting through multiple hours of listening to boring adults drone on and on about topics they couldn’t care less for. Must have been the cannabis!

But individual cases are not proof of much of anything. Once some genuine research on the topic started, investigations focused on actions in the laboratory or self-reported motivation. My favorite laboratory experiment required men to smoke cannabis on some days and not others while they built chairs for $2 apiece. The men went on strike for more money. Twice. Watch out when cannabis users unite! Another experiment had men live in a hospital for 3 months, smoking on some days and not others, and earning cash for various tasks. They earned the same amount of money regardless of whether they smoked that day or not (Cohen, 1976). So much for amotivation.

It takes a wee bit of long-term motivation to become president of the United States, no?

It takes a wee bit of long-term motivation to become president of the United States, no?

But 3 months isn’t an amotivated life. Anybody can act motivated for a little while. How about self-reports of general tendencies across a lifetime? A few cannabis users reported that they weren’t particularly motivated, but they were also pounding a lot of booze or doing hard drugs.

Anyway, it must have been the cannabis! (Not the other drugs).

Oh! These studies also forgot to ask people who weren’t using cannabis how unmotivated they felt. (Whoops!) One crafty study actually included some non-users and found that roughly 5% of everybody showed amotivational symptoms whether they used cannabis or not. Even non-users don’t always hop out of bed eager to go sell widgets for The Man.

My friend Sara Smucker Barnwell surveyed over 200 daily users and 200 people who’d never used. She jumped through every statistical hoop imaginable, and found no difference in self-reports of motivation

Okay. But what about the cash? Never mind how motivated you feel or how many chairs you build. This is America! How much money do you make? One survey of more than 8,000 young adults showed higher wages with increased use. People who had smoked more marijuana in their lifetimes earned more money. Note that this correlation does not imply that cannabis consumption actually causes better pay. (But hope springs eternally!) Perhaps people who earn more money can afford more marijuana. Another study found no link between cannabis use and work once the authors used appropriate statistical controls.

The funny thing is, cannabis users sometimes believe the amotivational nonsense themselves.

In my favorite study of this type, heavy users claimed that they were less motivated but more satisfied with their lives. This result begs some big questions about achievement and happiness. One culture’s amotivational syndrome may be another culture’s ideal lifestyle. For example, vacation time varies dramatically from country to country, reflecting different attitudes about leisure and productivity. What was all this motivation and achievement for, anyway? An enjoyable, balanced life must look exceedingly lazy to an exhausted, anxious workaholic.

With all these data countering the idea, how does amotivational syndrome stay in the public consciousness? We all know that the stereotypes and jokes don’t help. I’ve discussed selective memory before, too: Prohibitionists all remember the one high school pal who used the plant and never left the couch. They forget achievers like basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar or visionary scientist Dr. Carl Sagan or the historic President Barack Obama.

Carl Sagan: astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. Should "lazy pot smoker" be added to that list?

Carl Sagan: astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, science author, novelist, professor, activist, and…lazy pot smoker?

But I think there’s a little something extra here: jealousy.

There. I said it. Prohibitionists are jealous. I’ve been wanting to say this ever since my buddy Tom Denson published the paper that said “Daily users reported less depressed mood and more positive affect than non-users.”  In other words, fans of the plant are happier. Being a bitter workaholic prohibitionist is a buzzkill. Imagine ranting on television about marijuana’s evils when deep down you know there’s nothing more Satanic than wasting law enforcement time on possession busts. Imagine working day and night spitting bile about saving children when you know that it would be better to fund public education for kids than to toss their parents into jail for gardening. Imagine denying sick people medicine. That’s got to make anybody feel sick. Then you run into some happy fan of the plant enjoying leisure time. I’d be jealous, too.

But there’s a cure in sight. Prohibitionists, lay down your burden. Nobody on his death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time throwing people in jail.” You don’t have to smoke a joint. Just sit back and let amotivated reformers get some work done.

Portions of this argument first appeared with markedly less sarcasm in my book “Understanding Marijuana” (Oxford University Press.)

Unlinked References:

Cohen, S. (1976). The 94 day cannabis study. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 282, 211–220.

Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC). (1894). Report of the Indian hemp drugs commission. Simla, India: Government Central Printing Office