Cannabis users are often depicted as lazy “stoners” whose life ambitions span little further than lying on the sofa eating crisps.
But research from the University of Cambridge challenges this stereotype, showing that regular users appear no more likely to lack motivation compared with non-users.
The research also found no difference in motivation for rewards, pleasure taken from rewards, or the brain’s response when seeking rewards, compared with non-users.
“We’re so used to seeing ‘lazy stoners’ on our screens that we don’t stop to ask whether they’re an accurate representation,” said Martine Skumlien, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and the research’s first author. “Our work implies that … people who use cannabis are no more likely to lack motivation or be lazier than people who don’t.”
Skumlien said smoking cannabis could be associated with other downsides, but that the stoner stereotype is “stigmatising” and could make messages around harm reduction less effective. “We need to be honest and frank about what are and are not the harmful consequences of drug use,” she added.
Cannabis is the third most commonly used controlled substance worldwide, after alcohol and nicotine, with a 2018 NHS report finding that almost one in five (19%) of 15-year-olds in England had used cannabis in the previous 12 months.
The stoner stereotype has been depicted 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 sustained cannabis use leads to all-encompassing lethargy has been a pillar of public anti-drug campaigns, such as the “stoner sloth” campaign in Australia.
The latest research, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, involved 274 adolescent and adult cannabis users who had used cannabis at least weekly over the past three months, with an average of four days a week, and a group of non-users matched for age and gender. Participants completed questionnaires to measure anhedonia (lack of pleasure) and apathy levels, such as how much they enjoy being with family and friends or how likely they were to see a job through to the end.
Cannabis users scored slightly lower than non-users on anhedonia – appearing better able to enjoy themselves – but there was no difference when it came to apathy. The researchers also found no link between frequency of cannabis use and either apathy or anhedonia in the people who used cannabis. In work published earlier in the year the team also showed no difference in the brain responses to reward in cannabis users compared with non-users.
All participants were sober during the study and it is possible that people’s motivation would wane while under the influence of the drug – this question is being investigated in the next phase of the research.
Prof Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, said: “Our evidence indicates that cannabis use does not appear to have an effect on motivation for recreational users. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that greater use, as seen in some people with cannabis-use disorder, has an effect.”