The Study That “Proves” Cannabis Makes You Lazy

Does cannabis make you lazy? Maybe, according to a new study. But only if you’re a rat in a cage, fed a diet of THC and sugar cubes, and forced into performing pointless tasks.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have released a study – which has, of course, been pounced on by the Daily Mail and other mainstream media outlets – which they claim proves that cannabis does make people lazy. The study involved training 29 rats to choose between performing a simple or difficult task, by pushing the appropriate lever. The difficult task, if completed, would yield a larger sugary treat than the simple task.

Reading the media coverage of this study, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the rats immediately became useless, lazy, layabouts, refusing to perform any tasks at all as soon as THC was administered. Or perhaps they became crazed by the munchies and gorged themselves on sugar. It can be difficult to figure out exactly which stoner stereotype they’re aiming for sometimes.

The truth, as always, is less clear cut than the Daily Mail headlines would have you believe. Whilst it is true that some of the rats involved in the study were less likely to choose the more difficult task after being administered THC, what the newspaper reports fail to mention (surprisingly, given the study is free to read) is that even before administration of any drug, the rats had already been split into two groups: ‘workers’ and ‘slackers,’ based on their tendency to choose one task over the other.

Workers outnumbered the slackers by 17 to 12 before any drugs were administered. Throughout the various tests, those rats who had been classed as workers were consistently more likely to choose the more difficult task than those who had already been classed as slackers. In other words, the causal relationship between THC and laziness does not fit simply into an attention-grabbing headline.

The other key factor that is not mentioned by the press, and hardly explored by those carrying out the research, is the conditions the test subjects were kept in. The rats, as explained in the study itself, were “food-restricted to 14g of rat chow per day and maintained at 85% of their free-feeding weight.”

This brings to mind the famous ‘Rat Park’ experiment performed by Bruce Alexander in the 70s, which turned our understanding of addiction on its head. Dr Alexander found that all previous studies of addiction which had involved the use of rats, saw them kept in empty cages with no stimulation other than the drugs being fed to them. More often than not, those rats would keep accepting the drugs until they died.

Dr Alexander speculated that this was not, as was widely believed, down to anything intrinsic to the drugs, but rather down to the conditions the rats were being kept in. He then devised rat park, where similar studies were undertaken, but which provided the rats with lives of relative luxury. The results were dramatic. Rats which, in essence, had something to live for, which led fulfilling lives, did not drug themselves to death.

Now of course this latest study is not exactly the same. The rats here had already been injected with the drug, and were instead being tested on their propensity to perform difficult or easy tasks. But it’s worth bearing in mind. If I were a rat in a cage being injected with various chemicals, kept undernourished and under-stimulated, and made to perform mundane tasks for a sugar fix, I might not be too determined to do more than is absolutely necessary. I’m not sure that’s laziness, personally. Especially when the researchers themselves have admitted that the rats were perfectly able to perform the tasks, but chose not to.

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