The Lazy Stoner: Study Shows Evidence Lacking For Cannabis Users Slacking
The same way the lazy stoner is a stereotype you know, the stoned teenager whose motivation in school declines the more weed she smokes is a cautionary tale you’ve probably also heard of. Like most cautionary tales related to cannabis, however, the spectre of “cannabis amotivational syndrome” is often based on more rumour than fact.
For the past few years, Ileana Pacheco-Colòn, clinical psychology doctoral student at Florida International University and clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School, has been persistent in trying to determine the hard facts about cannabis and motivation.
Stereotype of the Lazy Stoner Stronger Than Evidence For It
The recent paper Pacheco-Còlon lead-authored for the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society is one in a series of close examinations of cannabis and motivation in adolescents. Its title, “Evidence Lacking for Cannabis Users Slacking,” sums up conclusions Pacheco-Còlon’s research has been backing up for several years.
“There’s a stereotype that has persisted,” she says, recalling that when she first became fascinated by the topic, “everywhere you’d look, you’d read about ‘amotivational syndrome,’ but when you tried to dig deeper there wasn’t much to support it. That’s how I became interested in doing this research.”
The research has brought about results she says definitively prove the unmotivated-stoner stereotype is far stronger than any evidence to support it. “In the discussions sections of my articles, I feel a little like a broken record. I keep saying the same things. But until we start addressing these points, I’m going to have to keep making them.”
Teenagers Self-Report On Motivation
In the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society study of about 400 teenagers who were mostly already cannabis users, Pacheco-Colòn and her team made five waves of assessments every six months, asking research subjects to self-report answers to two different scales measuring motivation.
What they found, she tells Cannabis Health, was that “change in cannabis use did not lead to reductions in motivation, even though we saw levels of cannabis use increase significantly among our sample. There was no change in motivation associated with that. Higher levels of cannabis use at baseline also did not predict changes in motivation.”
The nature of the study was “longitudinal,” rather than “cross-sectional”—meaning Pacheco-Colòn and her team wanted to be able to follow their teen cannabis users over time rather than taking a snapshot of one moment for the 400 subjects. The self-assessment scales had, she says, “a lot of subcomponents that allowed us to do fine-grained analysis.”
She and her team were aiming for finer understanding because the principal problem facing any researcher into cannabis and motivation is defining the terms of what constitutes the “motivation” in question.
As soon as discussion moves to motivation, cautions Pacheco-Colòn, it’s critical to define the terms of the study. “There’s behavioural components, and there’s cognitive components. Are we talking about effort—about willingness to work for a reward? Are we talking about persistence? Aspirations people have?”
The parallel process model of research the scholars used plotted cannabis use and motivation over time in order to determine a relationship at baseline and determine whether one variable predicted change in the other over time.
“That allows us to get more at the question of whether change in cannabis use causes change in motivation, or does initial high cannabis use cause change in motivation? That’s really what we were interested in. It also allows us to see motivation at baseline, so lower motivation might be a risk factor in escalating cannabis use.”
Most Associations Not Significant
But ultimately, after controlling for covariance, Pacheco-Colòn and her team concluded, “most associations were not significant. We found only a baseline association between cannabis use and valuing of school—which means at baseline, those kids who were using more cannabis were also reporting they valued school less.”
There are a variety of potential explanations for such an association; Pacheco-Colòn suggests some teenagers who value cannabis consumption don’t necessarily align with traditional societal norms, including the desire to do well in school.
But really, she says, there’s no clear explanation.
Heavy Cannabis Use and Depression Linked
Where there are clearer suggestions of causation is in the relationship between heavy cannabis use and increases in depressive symptoms.
“A meta-analysis from 2014 found causal links, in which people with very heavy cannabis use were likely to later develop depression,” she explains, “and it didn’t matter what age they started heavy use.”
Roughly 7 of the 17 studies she reviewed in her 2019 Current Addiction Reports systematic review “Effects of Adolescent Cannabis Use on Motivation and Depression” indicated a causal relationships between cannabis and depression.
“It’s enough to warrant concern,” she says. “Usually these effects are only seen at high levels of cannabis use, so is it specifically cannabis use [causing depression]? Or could it be addiction?”
The depression-motivation question has bedeviled the debate about cannabis and motivation for some time, since many early studies claiming to prove cannabis caused lack of motivation failed to control for depression and other mental health concerns. Equally complicating is the fact that lack of motivation can be a symptom of depression.
Measure Motivation and Depression a Challenge
“Motivation and depression together are tricky,” she says. “Right now we think [heavy] cannabis use [can cause] depression, but we’ve hardly ever studied [depression and motivation] together. It’s hard to say whether cannabis use is causing a reduction in motivation, which is a symptom of depression. Is that causing the increased depression symptoms? Or the reverse: is cannabis use affecting depressive symptoms broadly, which is why some studies are seeing a link between cannabis use and amotivation? There’s some evidence that cannabis use might reduce reward sensitivity, which is not necessarily the same thing as motivation—it’s more a matter of liking, or not wanting.”
Part of the problem is the issues in play are so multifaceted that it’s difficult to deal with them one at a time. For example, Pacheco-Colòn’s 2019 Current Addiction Reports systematic review looked at “academic motivation,” which she notes could only be measured by academic outcomes, “which I don’t necessarily think is the same thing!”
That systematic review found causal connections between heavy cannabis use in adolescence and poorer academic outcomes and educational attainment, as well as higher rates of dropout. Many of these factors are considered indicators of “motivation,” though Pacheco-Colòn is not sure they should be.
Self-Medication Could Play A Role
“We still don’t know whether that’s because they’re not motivated, whether it’s because they’re spending all their time getting high, [or because they’ll self-medicating for mental health],” she says. “Self-medication is one of the things we saw in some of the studies that looked at adolescent cannabis use and depression. Some of those studies did control for depression, but not all.”
In short, Pacheco-Colòn joins the entire sector in wanting to see more research on all these subjects. She acknowledges the limitations of self-reported studies—which only record what the people self-reporting are able to recognize themselves.
“We’re getting at their perceptions of their own motivation,” she says. “Things might be different if I gave their parents or friends a questionnaire to ask whether they think their [child or friend] is motivated. My dream project would probably be different measures of motivation: self report, informant report, but also performance-based, and some neuro-imaging in there too, to get at the question of motivation from a bunch of different angles.”
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