The following post was originally published on Miss Grass.
A woman smokes a joint at the DOPE Cup in Portland, Oregon, on October 4.
"This is quite good. I might be a creative genius!" is what my friend mumbled to me — internal monologue clearly up to max volume — when we were about 18. She was finishing off the piece de resistance that was her contribution to the lower third of an "exquisite corpse" drawing, doodled with me and another friend on a notepad. Whether or not the drawing itself was good (it wasn't) isn't the point. The point is she thought it was good. The weed she'd smoked had obviously loosened her up; made her more creative. Like my friend, most of us take that kind of assumption as a given. But the story of cannabis and creativity isn't so black and white.
Jenna Habayeb is the CMO of Canndescent, a premium cannabis company whose just-released Stylus pen (that resembles a gorgeous writing pen) is a THC vaporizer made for the creative process, complete with the tagline "Write your story." Aside from the literal meaning, Habayeb says, "It's about the idea of self-discovery and choosing your effect to create your own journey or story." And when it comes to her own journey with cannabis as a tool to unlock creativity, she believes "cannabis really helps with that, and when it comes to being creative it expands and opens your mind. It's like it unlocks this stream of curiosity and questioning, which is so great for the creative process and just pushing you to think outside the norm."
She continues: "I find that I get interesting, creative ideas that I can apply to a whole range of different aspects of my life and work." Habayeb is far from the only one with that hot take. Steve Jobs said smoking cannabis made him feel "relaxed and creative," while the great Maya Angelou said "walking on the streets became high adventure, eating my mother's huge dinners an opulent entertainment, and playing with my son was side-cracking hilarity." Then there are creatives like Susan Sontag, Martha Stewart, and even William Shakespeare, apparently. Blazers, all.
"It's not an accident that I include the option of a glass [of wine] or some quality cannabis during most AllSwell workshops," says Laura Rubin, the founder of AllSwell, a passion project that sees her hold journaling workshops, host creative excursions, and more — all with therapeutic self-expression as her North Star. She, too, believes induced states can lower our inhibitions, meaning we're more likely to freely express ourselves without judgment. Recently, in partnership with Miss Grass and Canndescent, Rubin hosted a creative journal-writing workshop that was designed to do just that — and the rave reviews spoke for themselves.
"If you're all locked up, worried about your output being great, it can prevent you from making anything at all," Rubin says. "That's, in part, where writer's block comes from. Removing a self-critical filter with some help in the form of a substance ally can help jump-start that process."
Jade Daniels of Portland-based weed-positive creative agency and brick-and-mortar store, Ladies of Paradise, agrees. "Some of my best work has come when I've been super stoned," she says. "I find myself thinking of things in depth and contemplating situations and ideas when I'm high that I normally wouldn't consider sober."
Her business partner, Harlee Case, echos her sentiments: "I basically can't write music without smoking weed. To be careful and careless at the same time, I have to be high. Consuming cannabis lets me trust my instincts and really let my heart lead." That description of being both careful and careless is something anyone who's smoked flower and gone about creating something — anything — will understand immediately. At once, there's focus and fluidity. Vigilance and carefree decision making. The perfect creative storm.
If it sounds dreamy, that's because it is. But, as anyone who's been there can also attest to, it's not all strokes of genius and prolific artistic output when you get high. You could also get sidetracked. Or find that elusive part of the brain responsible for productivity has fallen asleep on you, metaphorically if not quite literally. It's a delicate dance between creative bursts of inspiration, and koala-like desire to simply hang TF out, with no art-making or great American novel-writing necessary.
Rubin knows what I'm on about: "For some folks, they can be most creatively productive in a near-monastic state of [sober] simplicity because the fewer the distractions, the clearer the channel. There's no one-size-fits-all recipe. I think there are as many relationships to cannabis as there are people, and those ebb and flow based on where individuals are in their lives."
Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey is the author of The Art of Weed Butter and an interdisciplinary cannabis entrepreneur legally working with marijuana since 2005. She knows all about the "double-edged sword" that can be stoned creativity. "I cannot smoke a fatty joint and expect to write a masterpiece," she says. "Unless it's CBD flower. Otherwise I'd get too caught up on its perfection and might not get as much down on paper. I can, however, design (websites, graphics, vignettes) beautifully when I'm high."
What's weird is that even science kind of agrees. Despite many, many studies into the link between cannabis and creativity, the jury is more or less still out when it comes to the implications for the stoned auteurs among us. Some evidence even points to the possibility of the high artiste trope as being just that; a stereotype. Weed may not make you as creative as you think it does.
Take the results of one 2012 UK study. According to the team's findings, getting high on the reg may actually decrease creative thinking skills; however, they're quick to add, cannabis's effects vary depending on an individual's personality. But that's not the full story either (thank goodness).
A 2017 study from Washington State University found that creative people are simply more likely to enjoy getting high. The researchers suggest: "While mainstream media has propagated the idea that cannabis expands the mind and enhances creativity, our results show that the link between cannabis and creativity is largely a spurious correlation driven by differences in personality (i.e., openness to experience) that are related to both cannabis use and augmented creativity."
As primary author of the study and graduate instructor in psychology at Washington State University, Emily La France tells me, "openness to experience" is a personality trait. "Being very open to experience makes a person more willing to try different things and seek out new experiences," she says. "Individuals who are very open to experience tend to be more likely to try mind-altering substances, such as cannabis; they also tend to be creative."
She adds: "There is some evidence from previous research — not my own — that acute states of intoxication induced by cannabis (or alcohol) may enhance some forms of creative thought. So, there may be some truth to the idea that intoxication from cannabis (or alcohol), may help people generate ideas when they are working on a problem."
Further supporting cannabis's case as a tool for creative thinking (if not output) overall is the fact that a study conducted in 2010 showed that marijuana's "primary property" is its ability to increase the "hyper-priming process." What's that, you ask? Just the process your brain goes through when making connections between two similarly unrelated things.
What they're describing is the golden, sacred "Aha!" moment. THC fans know it well. It's the ability to connect the dots. To see one thing and make comparisons to another. You know, to view the world through the lens of an artist. Daniels, with no awareness of the study, sums it up by saying, "Being high opens up your mind and makes you think about things differently, and with that openness and free thinking allows you to create and execute ideas in elevated ways."
And if that's not creative, I don't know what is. "Ideas come to mind under the effects of cannabis that normally wouldn't be present," she continues. "Thoughts and actions are executed differently when you're high, and I find myself feeling more artistic and creating something with new ideas and ways outside of the norm."
Of course, this doesn't mean that you need cannabis to be creative. Far from it. As La France puts it, "Just because there is a link between cannabis use and creativity certainly does not mean that all individuals who use cannabis are more creative than those that don't. Furthermore, I believe you can increase your creativity throughout your lifetime through practice, critical thought, and by seeking out new experiences."
On the flip side, if you're looking to explore using THC-based cannabis products (like the new Stylus) for the first time, go slow and experiment. "Everyone is creative deep down. Cannabis is a tool to unlock it," says Case. And if you're looking for specific ideas, Daniels is your gal. "I'd recommend smoking before doing activities or grabbing some materials to collage, paint, or write and seeing where your mind takes you," she says.
Aggrey has similar advice. "It's arrogant for me to tell non-cannabis users what to do with their lives," she says. "However, if there is a moment in time when they feel comfortable trying cannabis for the first time, in a safe and comfortable space – I'd recommend they try something creative during that moment. Just to assess how it feels."
She continues: "Honestly, I am creative whether I'm high or not. And sometimes I'm not creative. That's just the way it works. Personally, it's about where my biorhythms are at and if I'm in a good place mentally – rather than if I've consumed cannabis."
So can we definitely state that there's a link between cannabis and being more creative? It's complicated, friends. Despite findings around openness to experience and the hyper-primer process, there's no statistical case for the creative benefits of cannabis overall — and a little evidence to say that in some cases, it might have a slight negative effect.
But that's the thing about creativity; it's elusive as hell. The ancient Greeks thought a goddess had to visit you (which rarely happened, presumably) just to get a glimpse of authentic inspiration.
Capturing the essence of creativity is not unlike trying to describe a really good high. You can try, but you won't be doing it justice. Anyways, "measuring" creativity in a scientific lab is fascinating, but possibly a little antithetical to the cause. If you're the kind of person that ~feels~ creative when high, then maybe you are. And even if you aren't, at least having a really good time. More power to you.