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Why People Think Potheads Are Lazy: A History

How the government and Big Pharma convinced us that stoners were dumbasses, and how marijuana legalization might just change that.
Sean Penn as Spicoli in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' Universal Pictures

Sean Penn as Spicoli in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' Universal Pictures

This article is originally from VICE US

"I no longer doubt that marijuana can be an intellectual stimulant," wrote the Harvard professor Lester Grinspoon in 1994. "It can help the user to penetrate conceptual boundaries, promote fluidity of associations, and enhance insight and creativity."
Those sentences are from his introduction to an edition of Marihuana Reconsidered, his groundbreaking 1971 book that aimed to challenge the public outcry over marijuana use.


The original edition of Marihuana Reconsidered also included an essay by someone who referred to himself as "Mr. X," and he noted how being high in the shower helped him figure out how racism worked—a revelation that inspired him to write 11 essays in an hour. The claim sounded crazy, until it was revealed that Mr. X was Carl Motherfucking Sagan. Sagan is a great example of a pothead who's accomplished amazing stuff while high—and he's not alone. Steve Jobs used marijuana to aid his creativity in the 70s, while weed was one of many chemicals it took to get Hunter S. Thompson's mental engines revving. Francis Crick was one of the scientists who discovered DNA, as well as an unlikely pot advocate who was a founding member of the proto-legalization group called Society of Mental Awareness (SOMA). The famed neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that pot allowed him to reconcile with his own atheism; author Lee Childs—whose Jack Reacher novels are a favorite among the Fox News set—recently admitted he's smoked every night for 44 years and writes while stoned. So why the hell do people generally think of potheads as lazy do-nothings?

There was once a time when marijuana was accepted among intellectuals and creative types as lubrication for the brain. Under the influence of hashish, "people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft," wrote the French poet, essayist, and general chill-ass dude Charles Baudelaire in 1860. He added, "Every difficult question… becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods."


Of course, Baudelaire was geographically and temporally separated from the American moral majority's reign of marijuana scare-mongering in the 60s and 70s. As Grinspoon wrote, "There is something peculiar about illicit drugs: If they don't always make the drug user behave irrationally, they certainly cause many nonusers to behave that way."

And right when marijuana cultivated a reputation as the counterculture's substance of choice, the government stepped in to impose what Allen St. Pierre refers to as "the idea that marijuana use creates a lack of productivity, a slobbishness, a lack of attention." St. Pierre is executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (or NORML), and says that those stereotypes have been around since the Nixon administration, who used them to wrest legitimacy from anti-Vietnam War activists.

Nixon and his cohorts worked to ensure that, as St. Pierre puts it, "Regardless of your political affiliation, if you were a Vietnam War protestor, ergo, you were a pot smoking, non-working hippie." A talkative, bubbly guy, St. Pierre essentially functions as a one-man force against public misconceptions regarding weed: He speaks with gleeful erudition about marijuana, and he estimates he's done "thousands" of interviews about the drug since joining NORML in 1991.

As the years have passed, the myth of the pot-smoking slacker has grown thanks to the Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA), the organization behind the notorious "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" ads. Founded in 1985, the Partnership for a Drug Free America brought together the best and brightest in the advertising industry to create ads meant to, according to one LA Times article from 1996, "un-sell" the idea of taking drugs. The PDFA didn't just brand drugs as lame, but actively dangerous, too; and just like Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, the PDFA initially did little to distinguish between weed and harder substances such as cocaine or heroin.


One of its ads depicted a kid who smoked pot once as dangling from puppet strings, while another found a stoned kid named Tommy smoking a joint in the park being mocked by his schoolmates for being a delirious loser. Another featured a documentary-style interview with an imaginary burnout whose pot use led him to heroin at the age of 14. Scary stuff—that is, until it was revealed in 1997 that the PDFA was being bankrolled in part by Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma, a plot that St. Pierre rightly says is "about as Orwellian as you can get."

Though the PDFA swore off accepting funds from alcohol and tobacco companies in 1997, it still accepts donations from Big Pharma; two years ago, the Nation wrote about how Purdue Pharma—the makers of OxyContin—was a major funder of anti-marijuana legalization efforts. But St. Pierre tells me that he expects stoner stereotypes to decrease as the decriminalization of marijuana increases: "When one walks into a marijuana dispensary today, they see some [strains] are designed equal to or better than any Starbucks." As more people become familiar with weed, and realize it doesn't turn them or the users they know into puppets on a string, the perception lifts.

Meanwhile, anecdotes of artists using marijuana to enhance both their creativity and productivity are myriad. DJ Quik frantically mixed half of Tupac's classic post-jail album All Eyez on Me in 48 hours by alternating between a steady smoking regimen of cigarettes and joints (Quik's reps confirmed to VICE that the story is true). And as St. Pierre points out, "Listen to the Beatles in their first years of existence, then listen to Sgt. Pepper. It wasn't the fact that they went from being 22 to 26—it's that they took marijuana."

And anyway, science—to a certain degree—backs up the idea that weed can motivate rather than deflate. A 2011 study showed that alcoholics who switched from booze to weed might experience increased creativity as a result, and a 2014 academic paper posited that marijuana could help increase creativity in uncreative people.

"I don't think marijuana is a key that unlocks something," St. Pierre is keen to clarify. "But marijuana can help people get through their day and have a series of clear thoughts. People are ripping away the overwrought static in their head and live a more functional life. If that isn't creativity, then what is?"

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.