One of the major harms of cannabis, we are told, is the dreaded amotivational syndrome. This raises the spectre of A students and gifted athletes who get the reefer madness and end up lying around on the couch all day watching television and playing with themselves. As with many arguments for cannabis prohibition, this one is based upon a sliver of truth, blown out of proportion.
According to this 2012 paper, the supposedly characteristic symptoms of amotivational syndrome are general passivity and apathy, loss of desire to work or to be productive, loss of energy, depression, moodiness, lack of stress tolerance and slovenliness.
If you think that this sounds like most mental illnesses, and that a person with these problems probably uses cannabis as a medicine to deal with them, you’d be right – for the most part.
However, there is such a thing as amotivational syndrome.
It’s worth noting here that this book is not about advocating for cannabis use per se. This book advocates for a reduction in human suffering by way of repealing cannabis prohibition. So there’s no problem in admitting that it’s entirely possible that cannabis smoking is a bad idea for a particular individual, and that there are many situations where many people shouldn’t use it.
The neurobiology of amotivational syndrome is not difficult to understand, because it’s essentially the same thing as burnout. Amotivational syndrome can arise when a person gets so high, for so long, that their brain circuitry gets used to that greater level of stimulation. This can lead to a situation where a person is no longer receptive to normal sources of stimulation.
Most people can relate to this feeling. After all, it’s little different to the same burnout a person gets after partying too long or being too long in combat or under high levels of stress. Some studies have shown decreased response sensitivity after periods of heavy cannabis use, but this is only part of the story.
As is the case with tobacco, decreased response sensitivity is often the reason why people use cannabis. For many people, the decreased sensitivity that comes with cannabis use is what is keeping them sane. These people use cannabis so that they are more relaxed and calm when they have to interact with others.
Thus, amotivational syndrome is far from a good reason to make cannabis illegal. In fact, it’s even more support in favour of legalisation.
Because some strains decrease sensitivity, while other strains appear to increase it, the best approach is to let people safely experiment with accurately and clearly labelled products purchased from a legal supplier, so that they can find the right proportion of cannabinoids for them. If amotivational syndrome is a problem, it can be best be avoided by avoiding those high-THC, low-CBD strains that tend to overload the mind.
Another point worth emphasising here is that one culture’s “amotivational syndrome” is another culture’s correct level of relaxation.
This was written about as far back as 1976, when a study pointed out that Jamaican culture had no concept of amotivational syndrome. That linked study refutes the idea of amotivational syndrome more generally, pointing out that the very idea of it is rooted in prejudice against cannabis users (as is the idea that cannabis causes psychosis).
It’s already clear that the rate at which our societies are consuming the natural resources of the Earth is not sustainable. The 8 billion people on this planet cannot sustainably consume more resources than does the average Western beneficiary, and these limits are not the result of political forces but hard natural ones. These inexorable forces pose immense problems for our culture in the West, which glorifies production and consumption.
It could be that, far from being destroyed by laziness and apathy, cannabis users have simply reduced their consumption to sustainable levels. The motivation to do this perhaps arose through a greater appreciation of the interdependence of all life on Earth, a common consequences of cannabis use.
Amotivational syndrome, then, could be said to only be a problem in the context of a modern society that demands maximum productivity from everyone. So the unwillingness to work and to be productive might really be a turn away from the consumption/production mania of the industrialised world and a return to the sanity that existed before it (when everyone used cannabis regularly).
In any case, the best way to deal with all this is to tell people the truth. If it’s true that high-THC strains of cannabis overload the brain’s reward pathways and make them insensitive to everyday stimuli, then this needs to be explained honestly to people. Conversely, if a person is happy using cannabis so that they become more relaxed and don’t consume the planet as voraciously, that also needs to be accepted.
If the Government and its departments told the truth about cannabis, then people would have confidence that their doctors were telling the truth when they tried to explain amotivational syndrome. This would make it far more likely that those who had proper cause to stop using cannabis would listen to people advising them to do so.
This article is an excerpt from The Case For Cannabis Law Reform, compiled by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.