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“Stock up on Cheetos and Mt. Dew BEFORE you spark,” a local police department in Kansas recently tweeted, warning “potheads” not to drive on 4/20.
While stoners may roll their eyes at the stereotyping, science, it seems, is on the police department’s side. Weed impairs our ability to think, organize, and pay attention, studies have shown. And it’s not usually associated with productivity and motivation.
Yet, some users feel more focused, even productive, after consuming or smoking weed — even though there’s no scientific evidence cannabis acts upon the motivational circuits in our brains.
“I’ve heard individuals report that they’ve followed through on tasks or got something accomplished,” Larissa Mooney, an addiction psychiatrist at UCLA’s Intregrated Substance Abuse Programs, said in an interview.
So what’s going on here? Why do some people anecdotally say using cannabis increases productivity for tedious tasks, like scrubbing the floor or organizing the house? Weed could be paving the way for motivation, even if it isn’t known to promote productivity directly.
Medical cannabis butter being put on crackers in Santa Monica, California.
Image: Bob Berg/Getty Images
The notion that cannabis can promote productivity or focus on any task, however mundane, is “unlikely,” Andrei Derbenev, an associate professor of physiology at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, said over email. This has been studied, and consistently shows the opposite effect.
“Actually, most of the research on cannabis and motivation shows no effect, or if anything, reduced motivation,” John Salamone, a psychopharmacologist at the University of Connecticut, said over email. The same goes for attention and focus, he noted.
But, cannabis might have a secondary, or collateral, type of effect. Derbenev said cannabis could potentially increase focus on some tasks indirectly, for instance, by temporarily reducing physical or mental pain.
“Someone’s perception is someone’s perception.”
Feeling better might also cause someone to perceive an increased motivation or focus.
“Someone’s perception is someone’s perception,” said Mooney. “During intoxication somebody might have more energy or more euphoria. They may be actually feeling better, at least, temporarily.”
But many everyday drugs or stimulants that cause a buzz, euphoria, or high can have a similar effect. “Some people might report the same thing after drinking a cup of coffee,” said Mooney.
Using cannabis to focus on activities may still work for some people, she said, because drugs affect different people in different ways. But this still isn’t a remote link to the drug increasing motivation or attention, especially when we know the opposite is true. “It can impair executive functions, which is to plan and organize,” said Mooney.
Cannabis cultivation in Washington State.
Image: Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
There is still much, however, that isn’t fully understood about the effects of cannabis use. This is because the federal government is highly suspect of the drug, classifying it as a substance with the highest abuse rate, or Schedule 1. Formal research means getting the Drug Enforcement Agency to approve a study and ensure the still-illegal drug is properly controlled and secured.
“It’s very difficult to do research on cannabis,” said Mooney. “It’s very hard to even obtain the product.”
The Food and Drug Administration states that it has “not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug for any indication.” The agency has, however, approved two similar synthetic substances that mimic the effects of marijuana for anorexia treatment and weight loss caused by AIDS.
The national tide, though, is turning. The federal government hasn’t yet budged, but marijuana (as of April 2018) has been legalized either medicinally or recreationally in 30 states. The former conservative Speaker of the House, John Boehner, now supports removing federal restrictions on cannabis “so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”
Even if it became easier to research the effects of cannabis, it still appears that the evidence is heavily-weighted against the drug truly promoting attention or motivation. Weed often stifles productivity, said Mooney, but it appears to work for some people. We shouldn’t “negate someone’s perception,” she said.