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Cannabis will make you lazy: Myth or reality?

Disclaimer: All information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. This article is in no way intended to entice, encourage or incite anyone to abuse any substance. The article is not suitable for persons under the age of 18.

Where did the stereotype of "lazy stoners" come from?

The image of the 'lazy stoner', which portrays cannabis users as unproductive and apathetic, is not a recent creation. It comes from the racially motivated propaganda that was spearheaded by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, back in the 1930s. Media campaigns exploited racial fears, associating cannabis with minorities and portraying it as a dangerous drug that leads to violent behaviour and crime on the one hand, and laziness and inaction on the other.

These perceptions were further reinforced by conflicting claims of both overactivity and apathy among cannabis users. Soon afterwards, the term 'amotivational syndrome' emerged, referred to in scientific articles by American psychiatrists Louis Jolyon West, William McGlothlin and David E. Smith. Amotivational syndrome is 'a chronic psychiatric disorder characterised by various changes in personality, emotion and cognitive function manifested by inactivity, withdrawal, avolition, apathy, incoherence, blunted affect, inability to concentrate and memory impairment'. The syndrome was first described in patients with a history of long-term cannabis use.

The stereotype of the lazy stoner has endured to this day. Try a Google search for the phrase "cannabis makes you..." and see for yourself what terms people most often associate with cannabis.


Sleeping young woman on the sofa with her eyes closed - dozing, daydreaming, tiredness and lack of energy

What do the scientific studies say?

Despite persistent stereotypes, the scientific evidence on cannabis use and motivation is not very convincing. Longitudinal studies, which are key to assessing whether there is a link between cannabis use and motivation, show mixed results. Let's look at some of them in more detail.

Marijuana and amotivational syndrome

Older but also some more recent sources often refer to the 1992 study. The research sample in this study was rhesus monkeys that were asked to perform motivational tasks and discriminate colors and location, and they showed reduced motivation for reward under the influence of marijuana.

One more recent study compared adolescents who smoked marijuana regularly (almost daily) with a group of non-smokers. Participants had to solve an experimental task with two options, one option was work rewarded with more money, the other option was "non-work" - participants could immediately earn less money without any effort. It was found that marijuana smokers switched to the "non-work" option earlier and received a greater percentage of earnings from this option, which was assessed as evidence of reduced motivation.

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience found that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, reduces rats' willingness to try cognitively demanding tasks. Interestingly, the ability to solve these tasks was unaffected - the rats could do the task but didn't want to do it. When THC was co-administered with CBD in a 1:1 ratio, the "lazy" effects of THC were slightly attenuated.

In a 2018 study, researchers tested the link between marijuana use and amotivational syndrome in 505 college students. The study also took into account whether the participants were also using any other substances, such as tobacco and alcohol. It showed that marijuana use alone was significantly associated with lower initiative and persistence, which are features of amotivational syndrome. They therefore concluded that marijuana is a risk factor for the syndrome.

Starring dopamine

How does cannabis affect motivation and activity? One possible explanation is a change in dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger whose job is to transmit nerve impulses between individual brain cells and the rest of the body. It is associated with pleasure, happiness, learning and motivation.

As suggested by some neuroimaging studies investigating dopaminergic functioning and reward sensitivity in cannabis users, changes in dopamine activation or functioning in limbic regions could underlie the 'amotivational syndrome'.

Cannabis, or its psychoactive component, THC, can initially temporarily increase dopamine levels, leading to feelings of euphoria and pleasure. It produces what is known as a "quick reward". However, regular use of cannabis can disrupt the natural balance of dopamine in the brain and reduce the sensitivity of dopamine receptors. This can cause a decrease in motivation for activities that do not bring immediate reward and reduce the ability to enjoy ordinary activities. So-called hypodopaminergia can lead to poorer memory, inattention and impaired learning performance.

Some studies suggest that the association between cannabis use and reduced motivation may be explained by co-existing depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms contribute to lower motivation and performance, which may be erroneously attributed to cannabis use alone.

New research: the end of cannabis myths?

Now let's look at more recent research that shatters the stereotype of cannabis users as lazy, apathetic and unmotivated. In 2022, a study examining anhedonia (the inability to experience positive emotions, to enjoy life), apathy and pleasure in a sample of 274 adult and adolescent cannabis users and controls was published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. The results of this study showed that cannabis use with a frequency of 3-4 days per week is not associated with apathy or amotivation, and that the response to rewards in adults and adolescents is similar to that of non-users. Control groups showed higher anhedonia than cannabis users.

Also of interest was a 2024 University of Toronto study based on research involving 260 cannabis users recruited from the online discussion forum Reddit. The research took the form of periodic mailed questionnaires that tested a wide range of motivational variables, from self-esteem, apathy and intrinsic motivation to actual mental effort. It turned out that under the influence of cannabis, users were neither more apathetic nor less motivated.

However, in contrast to the findings on motivation, this study found evidence that cannabis intoxication is negatively related to some aspects of conscientiousness. While marijuana did not affect willpower, responsibility and industriousness, chronic cannabis users reported being more impulsive, less organised and less orderly when 'high', more willing to lie to get their way and less willing to follow social rules.

However, this study (like some others) has limitations and the results may not be generalisable to the wider population of cannabis users.

The effect of CBD on motivation and productivity

As for the cannabinoid CBD (cannabidiol), we are not aware of any research that has evaluated the effect of this non-psychoactive compound from the cannabis plant on laziness or productivity. However, we do know that CBD has therapeutic potential and may help to relieve stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, but also improve sleep and help with insomnia, which may also indirectly affect activity and motivation.

As you know, when you are sleep deprived or out of sorts, you usually don't feel like doing anything, even when someone offers you a tempting reward.

Cannabinoids affect a number of mechanisms in the body through the endocannabinoid system, interacting with the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors found throughout our bodies. Strong binding of THC to CB1 receptors in the brain is associated with psychoactive effects, feelings of euphoria or increased appetite. CBD acts as a partial antagonist of these receptors, which means it can block or reduce the side effects of THC. In fact, this was confirmed in the aforementioned 2017 study, where the willingness of rats to take on challenging tasks increased when THC and CBD were co-administered in a 1:1 ratio. 

Also of note is a 2016 study that found CBD can reduce motivational dysfunction through activation of dopamine-releasing 5-HT1A receptors. The same study also states that the cannabinoid THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) also has therapeutic potential that could be used for dysregulated reward-motivated behaviour, i.e. for people who have trouble controlling their actions due to a strong desire for reward and struggle with addictions or eating disorders, for example.


Motivated team of young people dressed in formal clothes collaborating to develop a joint project

Conclusion: we must wait for the truth

The claim that cannabis causes laziness is one of the most well-known stereotypes. But even scientists are not clear about the relationship between cannabis use and motivation. Some (especially older) studies suggest that THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis, may reduce motivation and willingness to perform challenging tasks by altering dopamine levels in the brain and reducing the sensitivity of dopamine receptors. Regular marijuana users may prefer easier tasks with less reward, which could be evidence of reduced motivation.

However, the link between cannabis use and reduced motivation may also be due to, for example, co-occurring depressive symptoms.

Two studies published between 2022 and 2024 suggest that cannabis use is not associated with apathy or amotivational syndrome. These studies suggest that the reward responses of cannabis users are similar to those of non-users.

CBD could indirectly increase motivation and productivity due to its therapeutic potential (alleviating anxiety and depression, improving sleep quality) while partially alleviating any laziness induced by THC.

In summary, there is still very little well-conducted empirical research on the impact of cannabis on motivation and productivity, and we will only be able to reassess the persistent stereotypes on the basis of new, more detailed studies.


Author: Buds for Buddies



Photo: Shutterstock

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