Daily Mail Continue Crusade of Cannabis Hate

The latest cannabis research to hit the mainstream media comes with a typically shocking headline – “How cannabis harms your will to work: Just ONE joint reduces motivation” – but is there anything to it, or is this just another case of anti-cannabis propaganda dressed up as science?

As usual, the reality is that it’s a bit of both. The research, carried out by a team led by Dr Will Lawn, from University College London, and published in the journal Psychopharmacology, involved 57 volunteers split over two studies. In the first, 17 volunteers who are occasional users of cannabis inhaled the equivalent of one joint before being offered the choice of two tasks – one requiring more effort to complete than the other – to earn different sums of money.

The low-effort option involved pressing the spacebar key of a computer with their little finger 30 times in 7 seconds to win 50p. The high-effort option involved 100 space bar presses in 21 seconds, for rewards varying from 80p to £2. Then, on a later date, the same group of people repeated the test after inhaling a placebo.

The results indicated that being stoned made it less likely that the participants would choose the more strenuous task, but not by much. Professor Val Curran, who worked on the study, explained that, “On average, volunteers on placebo chose the high-effort option 50 per cent of the time for a £2 reward, whereas volunteers on cannabis only chose the high-effort option 42 per cent of the time.”

It was hardly an enormous difference in motivation, but it isn’t really a shock to learn that stoned people are slightly less motivated to perform arbitrary tasks for small amounts of money. Despite the bold headline, the results of the test only show that in this small study, there’s an 8% difference in the number of people who will choose to put in slightly more effort than they have to whilst intoxicated. It tells us little if anything about the effects on their long term motivation.


Which is where the second study comes in. For this part of the research, 20 people who were considered to be addicted to cannabis were matched with 20 people who had never smoked it. They were instructed not to consume drugs or alcohol (other than tobacco and coffee) for 12 hours, before they were given the same motivation test as the occasional users had already completed.

Now, if the headlines are to be taken at face value, you would expect that these cannabis ‘addicts’ would have been far less motivated than the occasional users, let alone those who had never consumed cannabis before. But this was not the case. Even the Daily Mail – the authors of the headline mentioned above – who had started their article with claims that cannabis use affects the motivation of users even when not high, and that therefore people’s life-chances could be affected by ‘just one joint’, were forced to admit that “cannabis-dependent volunteers were no less motivated than the control group.”

The Mail rightly pointed out that more research is needed, but as true as that is, it doesn’t absolve them of their responsibilities as journalists. The study being reported on was legitimate, and produced some useful results to be studied and reviewed, but the reporting of it was not. Headlines like the Mail’s are typical of science journalism on the whole, ignoring as they do the actual results of any given study and the words of the researchers, in favour of a scary or attention-grabbing headline. As much as they give me something to get angry and write about, these headlines and the fear-mongering that goes with them need to stop if we are ever to have a legitimate public conversation about drugs, and about science in general.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, Politics.co.uk and his own blog, www.thedomesticextremist.co.uk


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