The conventional wisdom of cannabis is as old as time: Getting high makes you more creative, insightful, and more willing to tap into your artistic side, leaving behind the serious concerns of your daily life.
But is there actually any truth in this?
What the Research says about Cannabis and Creativity
In terms of creativity and artistic inspiration, clinical research has found little support for the claim that cannabis boosts creativity.
The researchers gave 18 people high doses of 22mg of THC and low doses of 5.5mg in a 2014 randomized control trial. Divergent thinking tasks were performed significantly worse by participants in the high dose group. Cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while cannabis with high potency actually impairs divergent thinking.
Researchers examined the relationships between divergent thinking, schizotypy, and cannabis use in the same year. Positive schizotypy (mild schizophrenia symptoms) was associated with higher divergent thinking levels, not surprisingly. All groups except those with low creativity did not show a correlation between cannabis use and divergent thinking.
Based on these two studies, what conclusions can we draw? In low doses, cannabis has little impact on creativity but stiffens it in higher doses, or it boosts creativity if you’re creatively challenged.
What if cannabis does not make you more creative, rather, it makes you more willing to try new things. Cannabis users (who were sober during the study) “self-reported high creatively and performed significantly better on a measure of convergent thinking,” according to a 2017 study.
However, when considering “cannabis users’ higher levels of openness to experience,” the researchers found that the differences between the two groups disappeared. Consequently, cannabis users’ higher or enhanced creativity is a result of their greater openness to new experiences.
Is it possible that cannabis makes already creative people more adept at expressing themselves, or does it help people who aren’t creative see the world differently?
We might do well to examine some unscientific evidence for clues in the absence of concrete scientific evidence. It’s art, not science, after all.
Here are 10 cultural masterpieces we may not have had without cannabis – and some we definitely wouldn’t have.
1. The Works of David Hockney
A boutique West Coast cannabis company’s top-shelf flower labels would feature neon tangerine hues, flamingo pinks, and opal blues similar to those featured in the works of world-renowned painter David Hockney. His “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” sold at auction for a record-breaking $90 million in 2018, making him one of the most influential and successful artists of the 20th century. Although the painting was set in the landscape surrounding Saint-Tropez, it evokes a very powerful “Southern California poolside with a pre-roll” feeling.
A California medical cannabis card holder, Hockney has smoked cannabis for many years (but not when he is working). Are his paintings the result of his cannabis hobby? What do we know? But it certainly couldn’t hurt.
2. ‘The Chronic’ (1992)
Andre “Dr.” had something happen to him. We all benefitted from the work of Dre” Young between 1988 and 1992. Even though Dr. Dre famously said on NWA’s 1988 hit “Express Yourself” that he didn’t smoke weed or sess, his breakout solo album four years later was an ode to herb and even featured a cover that was a take on Zig-Zag rolling papers.
It was named after a slang term for high-grade weed, and it quickly became a byword for herb of any kind – but only the kind you’d name an album for. The album launched the career of a 21-year-old rapper from Long Beach named Snoop Doggy Dogg, made gangsta rap accessible to millions, and made California the epicenter of rap music for a while.
3. ‘On the Road’ (1957)
It was about the same time that many teenagers first tried marijuana that Jack Kerouac wrote this 1957 book. The defining work of the Beat generation, it encapsulates a sort of timeless young stoner fantasy: Two friends on the open road seeing all that Americana has to offer, getting high, and telling themselves that this really, truly could be a book someday.
He and his Beat contemporaries such as Ginsberg and Burroughs “demystified weed for the white middle class,” Ashley Manou wrote in The Varsity, and smoking cannabis “invoked a new prose style – free, more expressive, and unconventional.”
Cannabis, and the wanderlust of youth, arguably made many fans over subsequent generations more expressive, free, and unconventional.
4. ‘Up in Smoke’ (1978)
Before cannabis professionals in legal weed states learned that they could legally make a career in marijuana, two comedians did the same and did not even need a LinkedIn profile.
In 1978, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong released “Up in Smoke,” a groundbreaking stoner film that stood out from gritty films of the late 1970s and dark counterculture movies of the past.
The comedy duo had already released five top 40 comedy albums by the time the film debuted, but it introduced them to a national theater audience that may not have been part of their scene previously. In addition, the film had many jokes that hit.
Countless stoner films and documentaries would follow in the decades to come, but Cheech and Chong’s film career showed how marijuana not only inspired creativity, but also served as the opening act, headliner, main course, and spiritual leader of the whole project.
Today, in the era of legal weed, the movie serves as a reminder that so much of the artistic inspiration that marijuana fostered over the years was not merely the result of its cannabinoids, but also it’s status as an illegal, underground subculture with its own language and sense of humor.
5. ‘The Red Headed Stranger’ (1975)
Willie Nelson performing in 2012 (Chunky Glasses / CC 2.0)
Hippies in central Texas started getting beat up a lot less in the early 70s, according to legend.
“As Steve Earle told Rolling Stone in 2019, “When Willie Nelson moved back to Texas, I stopped getting ass kicked so much.” After living in Nashville for a decade, writing hits for other artists, the clean-cut Abbot, Texas native decided to return to Texas. His presence onstage brought together hippies and rednecks who shared a common interest in marijuana, psychedelics, country music, rock, and the cosmic confluence of the two.
After smoking weed for about two decades, Nelson recorded the album that many consider being his magnum opus in 1975.
Willie Nelson’s “The Red Headed Stranger” is a 15-track ballad and epic poem that tells the tale of an Old West preacher who kills his wife and her lover and becomes a fugitive after killing them both. As well as Nelson’s chart-topping rendition of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Time of the Preacher featured a haunting rendition (“he screamed like a panther in the middle of the night”).
In this story, what role does cannabis play? Nelson was already a cannabis smoker, but it’s also because cannabis played a major role in the Austin culture of the early 1970s, when Nelson was a part of it. In this album and Nelson’s visage, we see the power of place and time, as well as the way a heady mix of psychedelic rock, drug-friendly venues, country singers, and other artists can spark creative genius in any person.
6. Cosmos (1980)
Carl Sagan speaking in 1987 (Kenneth C. Zirkel / CC 4.0)
A 13-part miniseries titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage won two Emmys and a Peabody award in 1980 and inspired a bestseller book.
As it turns out, one of the century’s most famous pot smokers was the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who wrote and presented the series.
Sagan wrote an essay under the pen name “Mr. X” in which he praised cannabis and said that the experience “has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject I had never much appreciated.”
He also noted that cannabis helped him experience and appreciate what would typically be considered abnormal. “There are parts of me that make perceptions that in everyday life would seem bizarre; there are also parts of me that are observers.”
“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not stand scrutiny in the morning,” he wrote, dismissing the notion that stoned insights are trivial and should be laughed off when sober. In my opinion, the devastating insights gained when high are real insights; I am convinced that this is an error.”
Though cannabis did not provide Sagan with the scholarly depth and expertise he needed to become a world-renowned scientist, his essay proves that cannabis can inspire countless people to look inward and embrace the thoughts and feelings that transcend our daily lives.
Sagan knew that the greatest show on Earth is often within our own minds, and in the cosmos that illuminate the night sky above us.
7. The pottery of Seth Rogen (2019 to present)
Global pandemics and rolling lockdowns can generate creative juices, or just drive you to do something to pass the time. What if you combined the two?
A mohel joke writer turned Hollywood superstar and cannabis Dalai Lama, Seth Rogen has discovered the joys of home pottery over the past couple of years.
When Rogen began his pottery hobby in the summer of 2019, he exhibited an ashtray-centric collection, but soon moved on to vases, mugs, pots, and things you can use for pots. Currently, Rogen’s Instagram feed is a gallery of his trippy pottery collection, showing his dedication and skill.
Additionally, it shows the liberated, free-flowing mindset that often comes with being high most of the day. It’s the approach that says, “why not get high and make a flower vase covered in a bubbly glaze whose color looks like an exploded pair of clown pajamas?”
Be it ceramics or a cartoon centered on a talking sausage, Rogen’s art and his cannabis company are riddled with a stoner sensibility and an honest, driven desire to create more of the things you love.
8. The works of Louis Armstrong — and all that jazz
Louis Armstrong in 1953 (World Telegram/Library of Congress)
Across America, cannabis was a major feature of jazz long before the Summer of Love and beatniks smoked their own reefer.
During his life, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was perhaps the musician most associated with marijuana, and he spoke openly about his love of weed, which he called “gage.”
A few years before he died in 1971, Armstrong said “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody who smoked and respected gage.” He added, “That was our cute little name for marijuana.”
According to Armstrong, he and his peers viewed marijuana as medicine and that “the respect for gage will last a lifetime.”. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say them.”
In 1930, Armstrong was sentenced to six months in prison for smoking marijuana in California. In Hawaii, Lucille was arrested with a little over half an ounce of marijuana more than two decades later.
Marijuana smoking was at its height in the 20s and 30s, during the era of “Reefer Madness.” Marijuana was a demonized substance and stiff penalties for even the most minor offenses were common.
It created a sense of camaraderie between smokers, an outlaw sensibility that brought cannabis users together, and it went hand-in-hand with art.
9. Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials (2014)
In 2014, Lincoln debuted a series of ads showing actor Matthew McConaughey acting extremely stoned behind the wheel of a full-body sedan while under the influence of cannabis, which is illegal across the country.
Ads depict McConaughey as a middle-aged Texas man who isn’t fussed about life, who loves to ruminate in his car while hallucinating a longhorn bull straddling the highway dividing line.
When McConaughey filmed the commercial, was he stoned? When the ad team pitched the idea, were the writers high? In general, the general atmosphere of the commercial and the actor’s performance suggest that we often have deep thoughts when high, and conjure up grand treatises on life when we exhale.
In addition, McConaughey has a marijuana sensibility in general. It could be in his portrayal of Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, his arrest for playing bongos naked, or even his exploration of a Texas gubernatorial campaign while high but sober.
10. The travel guides and wisdom of Rick Steves (1979 to present)
Rick Steves on a TV set (Carlos Manzano / CC 3.0)
Many young Americans smoked marijuana for the first time in Afghanistan during the 1970s, but one of them may have started a truly remarkable, globe-spanning career with that first joint.
In the five decades after that first joint, Rick Steves has written 30 guidebooks on European travel and is the host of his own PBS series “Rick Steves’ Europe,” as well as the public radio show “Travel with Rick Steves.” Additionally, he has served as a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board since 2013 and is an outspoken advocate for marijuana use.
According to Steves, cannabis “refreshes your perspective and enables you to see things differently.”. I became more aware of my ability to appreciate things after using cannabis. It reminds you that there may be more to appreciate than what you see, hear, or taste when you aren’t high.”
In some ways, Steves’s open-minded, friendly approach to traveling and meeting new people is still rooted in his many years in Afghanistan.
In addition, Steves has written his “High Notes” for the past four decades, which he describes as an ongoing diary of the things he thinks about when he’s high.
Use cannabis to create your own art
Like Rick Steves’ cannabis journal, you don’t need your own artist’s studio, a literary agent, or a big break in Hollywood to create your own cannabis-inspired art. Mainly, you just have to create, and let your own ruminations fly.
There are numerous companies that have developed ways for cannabis users to put their stories down on paper through cannabis journaling.
On the front cover of Pilgrim Soul’s “Creative Thinking Journal,” the line “Please use this journal when you are high” stands out. To help you capture some of that stoney creative lightning in a bottle, the book contains 50 creative thinking exercises that boost imagination, focus, awareness, and reflection.
Even if you don’t end up writing the Great American Novel, cannabis journaling can help you consume cannabis in a more mindful, immersive way – even if you don’t get creative juices flowing.