Cannabis users are often described as lazy “high-pitchers” whose life ambitions go little beyond lying on the couch eating potato chips. But research from the University of Cambridge challenges this stereotype, showing that regular users no longer seem unmotivated than non-users.
The research also found no differences in motivation for rewards, pleasure derived from rewards, or brain response when seeking rewards, compared to non-users.
“We are so used to seeing ‘lazy stoner’ on our screens that we don’t stop to wonder if they are an accurate representation,” said Martine Skumlien, a PhD student at Cambridge University and lead author of the research. “Our work implies that … people who use cannabis are not more likely to be motivated or lazier than people who don’t.”
Skumlien said smoking cannabis may be associated with other downsides, but that the stereotype of high is “stigmatizing” and may make harm reduction messages less effective. “We have to be honest and frank about what the harmful consequences of drug use are and are not,” she added.
Cannabis is the third most commonly used controlled substance in the world, after alcohol and nicotine, with a 2018 NHS report finding that nearly one in five (19%) of 15-year-olds in England had used cannabis in the previous 12 months.
The stereotype of the high has been represented in fictional characters such as Danny the drug dealer in Withnail and I, The Dude in The Big Lebowski and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. And the idea that prolonged cannabis use leads to an all-encompassing hibernation has been a mainstay of public anti-drug campaigns, such as Australia’s “stoner laziness” campaign.
The latest research, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, involved 274 adolescent and adult cannabis users who had consumed cannabis at least weekly for the past three months, with an average of four days per week, and a group of non-users matched for age and gender. Participants completed questionnaires to measure levels of anhedonia (lack of pleasure) and apathy, such as how much fun they enjoy being with family and friends or how likely they are to get a job done.
Cannabis users scored slightly lower than non-users on anhedonia – seeming more able to enjoy themselves – but there was no difference when it came to apathy. The researchers also found no link between the frequency of cannabis use and apathy or anhedonia in people who used cannabis. In work published earlier this year, the team showed no differences in brain responses to reward in cannabis users versus non-users.
All participants were sober during the study and it is possible that people’s motivation waned under the influence of the drug – this question is being investigated in the next phase of the research.
Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, said: “Our evidence indicates that cannabis use does not appear to have an effect on the motivation of recreational users. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that increased use , as seen in some people with cannabis use disorder, have an effect. “