When we think of cannabis icons in pop culture, we’re relegated to a commonly seen trope: the lazy stoner. From James Franco glued to the couch in Pineapple Express, which was of course, inspired by Brad Pitt’s burnout character Floyd from True Romance—this stoner stereotype has undoubtedly contributed to the idea that people who use cannabis regularly are unambitious sloths.
There is some veracity to the cliché, however. Everyone knows a highly potent indica can easily vanquish a person’s energy levels and confine them to hours on a couch. On the other hand, sativa strains tend to come with descriptions that present the opposite: increasing focus, promoting productivity, and boosting energy.
Numerous cannabis advocates have claimed pot has made them more productive. The famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan once penned an essay in which he admitted to writing “eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics” while high. Director Kevin Smith has said he can be very productive stoned, while citing actor and writer Seth Rogen, who has admitted that weed helps his creative process, as his inspiration. Even Lady Gaga once said she smokes a lot of pot when she’s writing music. That doesn’t sound lazy at all.
But can cannabis really help boost productivity? Maybe for some people, but Dr. Jordan Tishler, MD, CEO/CMO of Boston-based practice InhaleMD, and president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists, thinks that for the majority of cannabis users, the answer is no. “We have pretty good evidence that cannabis intoxication hampers memory and cognitive processing speed,” he explains, adding that there are some exceptions to these generalizations.
“People with severe anxiety would likely see a benefit, but best practice in treating anxiety uses the cannabis at night before bed, and not throughout the daytime. People with ADHD report increased focus and concentration with daytime use of cannabis, but this is by their report and not at all proven.”
Neurologist and cannabis expert Joshua Kaplan, agrees. “There’s no good evidence one way or the other on cannabis’ effect on productivity,” he says. “THC itself is sedative, which would predictably reduce productivity, but it’s unclear how the different cannabinoid interactions affect this. Further, productivity and creativity are sometimes intertwined, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, and a bit of empirical evidence, to suggest that cannabis enhances creativity. Whether this equates to productivity depends on how you define it.”
When it comes to long-term cannabis users, a decrease in productivity may be true. A 2013 study titled Dopaminergic Function in Cannabis Users and Its Relationship to Cannabis-Induced Psychotic Symptoms' Biological Psychiatry, conducted by researchers at Imperial College London, UCL and King's College London, found that people who had been using cannabis for years had lower levels of dopamine, which, in turn, may lead to a decrease in motivation.
However, there is some scientific research that points to the possibility of cannabis usage increasing productivity. Another study, this one from 2016 and titled A Pilot Study Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana on Executive Function, showed improved performance for cognitive function for patients who used medical marijuana for three months. According to the study, participants demonstrated completing tasks in a shorter amount of time, without making any more errors.
Dr. Jeffrey Raber, Executive Director of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs and formulator to cannabis vaporizer brand Nuvata, believes cannabis can help with focus and productivity. “I do believe that is possible,” Dr. Raber says. “However, we don’t yet know which cannabis compositions, consumed in which forms are best for this use for which specific person.
He points out that the different types of varietals are not the best indicators of specific cannabis chemical compositions. “Instead, the overall cannabis composition including both cannabinoids and terpenes is a much better indicator of experience with cannabis,” he says.
It’s worth pointing out that when it comes to marketing claims, specifically for sativa strains, both Tishler and Raber agree that there is an issue. “The industry will say what it can to promote sales,” Dr. Tishler says. “Who wouldn’t want something to be more creative and productive? Again, studies show that creativity, at least as narrowly construed as “thinking outside the box” when given a task in the lab, goes down, not up. Many people report increased creativity but seldom do we see evidence to prove it.”
Dr. Raber adds, “I think there is a lot of marketing today that is very far ahead of any scientific substantiation. I believe cannabis products can create enhanced states of mind, including feeling more productive. However, the degree of effects varies for each person as cannabinoids and terpenes interact with the endocannabinoid system differently from individual to individual.”
Still, some cannabis advocates credit the plant for helping them get more work done. “Some of the most productive people I know are heavy cannabis users,” Alison Gordon, CEO of Canada-based cannabis company 48North, says. “For me, cannabis energizes me, my brain starts moving and I am often motivated to take on dull tasks like organizing the house or paying bills.” Gordon says it helps her get focused on tasks that she would otherwise avoid:
“I know that cannabis has opened my mind in creative ways that help me problem solve in business and life,” she says. “It’s exciting that people are learning now that much of what they believed about cannabis and its users has been myth and misconception.”
Cannabis influencers and YouTubers Alice and Clark of That High Couple, also praise weed’s ability to inspire productivity. “We can say with confidence that our dishes would never get done without cannabis,” Alice and Clark explain. “We both work full-time, Monday through Friday jobs that bring their own baggage mentally, and then we stack that on top of our responsibilities to our social media channels. YouTube and Instagram is a daily grind and it's enough to feel overwhelmed about how little free time we have outside our jobs to accomplish everything.”
Without cannabis, Alice and Clark say that they’d be like “deer staring into the headlights of their responsibilities.” Whether they choose to smoke, dab, or eat an edible, it brings them back to the present. “When you stop tripping over every task you have to do, you're able to focus on what task you can do right now,” they say. “Suddenly spending 10 minutes doing dishes isn't a chore, but a peaceful way to unwind your mind while still being productive.” It particularly helps with their content creation:
“Hours of editing become less daunting when we're high because we're not thinking of how long it will take to get to the finish line, but focusing our attention on each step of the way until we surprisingly arrive at a polished, finished YouTube video,” they explain.
More research must be done to figure out whether cannabis can truly help boost productivity, as all we can refer to are these types of anecdotal evidence. Still, it’s something to consider, especially when it comes to microdosing. Microdosing, which is when you ingest cannabis in lower, precise dosing, usually between two to five mg of THC, has been touted as a way to achieve greater levels of productivity.
Other anecdotal benefits of microdosing cannabis are known to include pain relief, decrease in stress, and increase in creativity. Perhaps this low-dosage amount is the key to avoiding couchlock and instead unlocking cannabis’ productivity-boosting potential.