Culture

Can marijuana make you more creative? Artists and researchers weigh in

Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, George Carlin, Louis Armstrong, Jay-Z…

They’ve all credited cannabis with fueling their creativity.

“If ever I need some clarity… or a quantum leap in terms of writing something, it’s a quick way for me to get to it,” singer and songwriter Alanis Morissette once told High Times magazine.

Such talk has helped the plant take on an almost mystical reputation as a cure for writer’s block and a muse for some of the biggest cultural innovators of our time.

But as more states legalize cannabis, and acceptance of the plant grows, more artists are speaking honestly about their sometimes complicated relationship with marijuana.

“It’s not a trick to use to get a good idea,” said Aaron Lammer, who’s co-written songs for the likes of Drake and is host of the podcasts “Longform” and “Stoner.”

Scientists are asking, too. There’s a small but growing body of research looking at the link — if any — between marijuana and creativity.

Taken together, these conversations are offering a better understanding of who might benefit from a cannabis-fueled boost, at what stage in the creative process marijuana might be effective and when it might actually hamper that all-important creative flow.

What the artists say

“So many people are not creative anymore,” said Heidi Keyes, a 32-year-old painter and art teacher who’s used cannabis since she was 15 to calm anxiety and boost creativity.

“We’re not encouraged to make art as adults. And when we do, we’re so worried about looking like a fool or not doing a good job.”

Consuming cannabis, the Oakland resident said, “helps people relax into themselves.” It helps them enjoy the process rather than worrying about the end result and what other people might think.

Keyes enjoys a glass of wine, too. While alcohol can also lower inhibitions that stop artists from taking risks, Keyes said she feels like booze makes her “sloppy.” Conversely, she says the right weed — she prefers a hybrid strain called Blue Dream — makes her “focused.”

Meghan Hall of Los Angeles exhales a hit while working on the blue tones of her sky during a “paint the joint” party in Irvine. (Photo by Matt Masin, The Cannifornian)

Those benefits don’t stop at the canvas, according to Keyes. She says the plant has also helped her be more innovative as a businesswoman.

Four years ago, she founded the company Puff, Pass and Paint, in Denver, modeling it after the popular trend of offering classes that mix painting and wine. Her courses, available in Los Angeles, Orange County and Oakland, offer instruction on pottery, cooking, writing and more — with cannabis passed around the room as students of all ages laugh and bond and create.

In Keyes’ view, the difference between cannabis and alcohol is clear. Photos splattered across social media show paintings created in wine-powered classes that look similar. But cannabis-infused art, Keyes notes, can vary widely.

Looking back, students will often tell her they were surprised they’d chosen such a bright color or that they’d veered so far from the model. Sometimes that leads to a good laugh, then quietly stashing the picture in a closet. But most of the time, she said, students are glad to see they took chances for a change.

Some high-profile cannabis fans, such as Woody Harrelson and Miley Cyrus, have said they recently stopped smoking weed because they didn’t feel it was pushing them forward personally and professionally.

Filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson (“First Winter” and “Creative Control,” among others) believes cannabis helped him be more innovative in his college years, but that it started to make him paranoid and antisocial as he got older, he told listeners during an episode of the first season of Lammer’s “Stoner” podcast.

Most of the creative types Lammer knows have been cannabis consumers at some point or throughout their lives, he said.

“If you work in recording studios at all, it’s pretty unavoidable – certainly in California, in the area I grew up in,” he said, referring to his native Berkeley.

But rather than fueling moments of genius, Lammer sees marijuana as part of his lifestyle, not unlike the way millions of others view coffee.

What the research says

The anecdotal evidence linking cannabis to creativity is abundant, with consumers self-reporting significant increases in creativity in studies conducted from 1970 to 2003.

But a basic question remains: Does cannabis make people more creative, or are creative people drawn to cannabis? A recent study by researchers at Washington State University suggests it may be the latter.

Emily LaFrance, a graduate student studying psychology at Washington State, said she became interested in the topic because a number of her favorite musicians and artists were known cannabis enthusiasts.

Her study, published in November 2017 in the journal “Consciousness and Cognition,” didn’t attempt to measure creative output when cannabis consumers were high. Instead, it looked to see if folks who gravitate toward cannabis are naturally more creative, even when they aren’t feeling the effects of the plant.

The Chalice Festival in Victorville during summer 2017 featured glass blowers, live art and massive art installations. (Sarah Alvarado, The Cannifornian)

LaFrance and research partner Carrie Cuttler, a Washington State psychology professor, found that cannabis consumers scored high on creativity tests. But they also found that regular users of cannabis tend to measure high on the openness category of the so-called Big Five personality test, meaning they were “open to experience” even when they weren’t feeling the effects of the drug. People with a particularly open personality tend to be innately more creative. They’re also more likely to try cannabis and other types of drugs.

“Differences in personality are driving the difference in creative ability,” LaFrance said. “Cannabis use itself is not influencing creativity.”

That baseline personality may be key to the impact that marijuana has on creativity.

A 2012 study by researchers at the University of London showed that for people who are naturally creative, smoking moderately potent cannabis didn’t change their output. But the study also found that cannabis use did boost the ingenuity for people who, when not using cannabis, weren’t very innovative.

Potency seems to be another factor.

A study published in the March 2015 issue of Psychopharmacology found that people who regularly vaped potent marijuana performed worse on a test that measured so-called “divergent thinking,” meaning the ability to come up with multiple solutions to one problem. The research also showed that people who used low doses of marijuana performed only slightly better than people who used none.

“In other words,” the study’s authors write, “smoking a joint may not be the best choice when in need of breaking…  ‘writer’s block,’ or overcoming other artistic inhibitions, and smoking several of them might actually be counter-productive.”

Smoking potent cannabis also might hamper innovation because it can lead to “apathy syndrome,” said Dr. Alice Flaherty, a neurologist with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who studies creativity. Since motivation is a super important component of creativity, she said, anything that zaps someone’s drive can have a detrimental impact.

There also may be a placebo effect taking place with self-reported creativity, Flaherty said. The more celebrities attribute their success to marijuana, the more aspiring artists might claim to feel the same benefits.

One reason there aren’t more concrete answers on this subject is because researchers still argue over how to best measure creativity — or whether it can be objectively measured at all.

It’s made more complicated by the fact that federal regulators still classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which makes it nearly impossible for many researchers to study.

And things get even more complicated when you factor in how different strengths and strains of cannabis can affect people in different ways. Studies need consistency. But while administering a sativa strain with 15 percent THC content might make one person get into a creative flow, it might make someone else — even if they’re the same gender and age and size — feel anxiety or paranoia.

What works best

Flaherty said cannabis is considerably safer than other drugs, including alcohol and heroin — two drugs that have claimed many talented musicians and other creatives. Many used those substances to self-medicate, and help them manage the day-to-day effects of underlying mental disorders.

That safety factor is important, since Lammer said people interested in using cannabis as part of their creative process need to be willing to experiment on themselves to figure out which doses and strains give them the effect they want.

That’s why many artists stick to this mantra: Create high, edit sober.

“Because cannabis lowers inhibitions a little, it’s good for brainstorming a bit,” Flaherty said. “Even if it did degrade the average quality of the idea, there’s evidence that the total number of ideas is the most important thing. Then, later, in the ‘sober’ light of the next day, you weed out the bad ideas.

“WH Auden put it very well: ‘The best poets write many more bad poems than the bad poets.'”


To subscribe to The Cannifornian’s email newsletter, click here.