To many, Cheech and Chong are the prime models of typical stoners: Lazy, unmotivated, dumb and spacey. While the classic cannabis comedy team definitely inspired some laughs, it also helped cement the stigma that potheads are apathetic losers—a stereotype that has survived for half a century. While it’s not always true, the general public, and even weed users themselves, have internalized the stereotype. Many still believe it.
But new research might finally put the apathetic stoner-stereotype out of its misery for good. The image of the pot-addicted teen melting into the couch that the American public has been subjected to for the last few decades can be put to bed.
Dr. Gary Wenk, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, wrote an article last month in Psychology Today that analyzed research on the matter and concluded that studies linking weed with a lack of motivation and apathy were flawed from the get-go.
A 2018 study published in the journal Prevention Science found that college students who use cannabis regularly forecasted lower initiative and persistence compared to non-users. The researchers factored in age, gender, race and drug-use demographics as well as applying a personality test to assess extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism.
“Findings provide partial support for the marijuana amotivational syndrome, underscore marijuana as a risk factor for decreased general self-efficacy and offer implications and insights for marijuana prevention and future research,” wrote the scientists.
The problem with the study is it’s based on self-reporting and didn’t involve any actual monitored cannabis use. It’s also unclear if the researchers accounted for participants’ perception of weed’s effect on motivation.
Wenk points out that more recent studies have found the opposite of the cannabis amotivational syndrome theory. It may come as a shock to high school counselors and D.A.R.E. cops, but evidence indicates that potheads are actually more motivated and emotionally invested than non-users.
In February, a study appeared in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology that flipped the stereotype on its head. Researchers took 47 college students and had them complete behavioral assessments for the Effort Expenditure for Rewards Task. There were 25 weed users in the group.
The test judges efforts in decision making by giving participants the choice of easy or difficult tasks. The researchers found that the amount of weed consumed in the previous month and cannabis use disorder symptoms predicted the likelihood that participants would select a high-effort trial.
When given the option, potheads were ready to put forth more effort than non-users. The song “Because I Got High” is no longer accurate and some advocates are demanding that it be removed from all playlists.
One take on the persistence of the stoner archetype is that frequent pot users may only appear to be apathetic because they are motivated by an entirely different set of values than the ones that motivate non-users. After all, it’s hard to separate weed culture from the peace movement of the ’60s or AIDS activism in the ’90s, and both of those were counterculture movements.
A 2016 paper published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that cannabis users were too lazy to put more effort into a simple task when asked—at least when the reward involved money.
Researchers at the University of College London (UCL) gave 17 occasional cannabis users either a THC oil vaporizer or a placebo and tested their willingness to take on tougher tasks for money. Participants were given the option of pressing a space bar 30 times in seven seconds with their dominant index finger for about 61 cents or pressing the space bar 100 times in 21 seconds with their non-dominant pinky finger for a couple of bucks. The results were compared to a group of 40 participants who didn’t vape anything.
The researchers found the people on weed were far more likely to turn down the offer to work harder for more money.
On average, participants in the placebo group chose the high-effort option 50 percent of the time, whereas the cannabis group only chose the high-effort option 42 percent of the time. But they said there was no difference between the cannabis users and the non-users once the effects of the drug had worn off.
The researchers concluded that THC “acutely induced a transient amotivational state” in participants. They didn’t appear to consider the possibility that the amotivational state they were witnessing may have been directly related to the reward presented. Weed might just make people care less about money.
As with most things related to cannabis, there’s still a lot more research that needs to happen before we can put the final stamp on it, but it seems like evidence is indicating weed won’t make you lazy and apathetic. In hindsight, the very idea seems ridiculous, since there are so many high-operating potheads out there such as Michael Phelps, Steve Jobs, Jay-Z, Joe Rogan, Lady Gaga and George Washington.
We can’t blame the whole thing on Cheech and Chong, of course. The bit wouldn’t be funny if everyone thought marijuana users were highly-motivated go-getters. No, the stereotype was likely born on the back of racism and pro-war propaganda. Black activists and peace advocates in the ’60s were difficult to silence thanks to that pesky right to free speech. But they did share a love of cannabis, meaning the federal government could pass the Controlled Substances Act and shut down dissidents in both camps in the name of public safety without turning too many heads.
But that’s a bedtime story for another night.