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Inside the Mind of the Productive Stoner

Why are some stoners functional and motivated while others are stuck under a mound of Doritos dust in their bean-bag chair?

The stereotypical stoner spends their life in a cloud of TV and Cheeto dust, their existence marked only by which couch cushion they’re presently on. It’s a caricature of actual weed smokers, of course, but one that many can relate to. In all my time “researching” the effects of THC, I’ve learned that it’s best enjoyed when your obligations are already out of the way, since it probably won’t help you handle them.

However, as long as there’s been weed, there have been legends of productive stoners, who not only function, but function better under the influence. Ramesses II, who oversaw Egypt’s greatest building campaign, is believed to have indulged. Queen Victoria, who ruled England and Ireland for over 63 years, was allegedly prescribed cannabis by her doctor to relieve pain. And numerous modern celebrities — Snoop Dogg, Seth Rogen, Rihanna — have seamlessly incorporated ganja into their roads to the top.

Furthermore, legalization has opened the floodgates for weed smokers who genuinely believe they’re more productive after locking lips with their bongs. I’ve spoken to many, and I’m jealous of their capacity to function while stoned. I’ve always wondered, though, why I’m not like them. Is it me? Is it my weed? What makes one stoner productive and another so unmotivated that they’d rather watch three hours of commercials than get up to grab the remote?

It’s still something of a mystery, but there are a number of theories. One of the more popular explanations is simply that we all have different endocannabinoid systems, which therefore react differently to weed. “It’s reasonable to assume we have different physiological tendencies,” says Jeffrey C. Raber, CEO of The Werc Shop cannabis laboratory. This doesn’t only apply to cannabis either — he says pharmaceutical drugs rarely achieve 100-percent success rates in clinical trials, simply because people have different reactions to them.

What makes this even more complicated is that we’ve identified about 120 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and people may respond to these different kinds of cannabis differently as well. That would explain why stoners commonly tell resolute non-smokers that they “just haven’t found the right strain yet.”

The effects of weed can also change as a person ages, which complicates things even further. This can be because of a shift in their tolerance to THC or an adjustment to their mental state, which would suggest that one’s productivity while high could depend on their present mindset. “I wrote many of my college papers under the influence of cannabis,” says 420-friendly psychotherapist Sara Ouimette. “Yet, I can’t imagine myself doing that now, as I’ve become more averse to the effects of THC with age.”

Now, those are all caveats for what I’m about to describe next. Just keep in mind that people are different, and that the effects of weed can differ not only from person to person, but also from moment to moment. That’s one possible reason why some stoners are productive and some aren’t. Things, however, get more nuanced from there.

Another important factor is what sort of task said stoner is engaging in. For example, some research suggests that weed boosts creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, which could be helpful for artistic endeavors, like writing music or painting. This would make sense when you consider how THC is believed to work: Adie Rae, an assistant scientist at the Legacy Research Institute in Portland, Oregon and cofounder of Smart Cannabis, a company dedicated to identifying the world’s best cannabis flower, tells me that weed shuts down our brain’s default mode network, much like psychedelics. This forces the brain to recruit other circuits and therefore process things differently than before, which can generate new ideas that wouldn’t have necessarily come about without a couple puffs. (Though, whether those ideas can be put into action is another matter.)

Because of the ways THC is thought to impact the brain — by essentially impairing cognition — Rae also has a working theory that people who have trouble focusing or who are highly anxious are more likely to benefit from cannabis. “If your brain is constantly distracted by all the trappings of modern society, you might be more functional if it’s only capable of tuning into one channel at a time,” she says. This could help explain why people with ADHD are significantly more likely to self-medicate with weed than people without it.

Now, this hypothesis is based entirely on anecdotal evidence Rae has gathered in her 17 years of cannabis research, so it’s important that you’re honest with your doctor if you’re considering using weed to help yourself focus. This is especially necessary if you’ve been diagnosed with and taking medication for ADHD, since there are a large number of concerns related to the effects of cannabis on a brain impacted by ADHD.

Beyond the possibility that weed can help with certain mental functions, there’s also evidence that it can contribute physically, too. While open to debate and further research, some studies have suggested that the dissociative effects of weed may help people perform monotonous tasks. Take endurance runners, for example: “If they’re able to dissociate from the boredom of running 20 miles, they can enhance their performance and simply get through it with less pain,” Rae says. The same may apply to jobs that also require loads of repetition, like working on an assembly line. “Alleviating some of that painful boringness of your job could make you more productive,” she adds.

That’s to say, when it comes to how productive a stoner is, the type of productivity matters. For instance, your friend may be able to smoke weed all day and do a perfect job of folding clothes, stacking crates or mowing lawns, because those tasks are relatively monotonous. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to smoke weed all day while conceptualizing a state-of-the-art rocket that can make its way to the moon.  

On a final note, any boost in functionality that weed may provide depends entirely on dosing. As Rae explains, there’s a “sweet spot” characterized by a slight change in thinking without a great deal of intellectual and physical deterioration. It’s the higher doses that make you feel like you could happily stare at the ceiling for hours because you’re incapable of leaving the couch and formulating a meaningful thought. Unfortunately, as Rae points out, most users have never experienced that “sweet spot,” because the cannabis market is dominated by high-potency products that send you well above a functional dose even after a micro-toke.

What that perfect dose may be for you depends. It all goes back to what I was saying earlier about endocannabinoid systems and how everyone is different. But it’s safe to say that, in your average dispensary full of hyper-weed, less THC is always going to be better if you’re hoping to function while high.