Roe Ethride, Sarah Beth with Pipe, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.
“Was there ever any fear that, by giving up the drugs, you lose a bit of the genius?” a young Jon Stewart asked his creative hero George Carlin in a 1997 interview.
Carlin, who remembers his 1960s self as a rebel-comedian eager to experiment with cannabis and mescaline, replied: “Where the drugs are concerned, and alcohol, they do seem to open a window for you. They do seem to broaden the vistas—at first.”
Like many creatives both before and after him, including Charles Baudelaire, Amedeo Modigliani, Louis Armstrong, and even Steve Jobs, Carlin used pot recreationally. He joked that he always had a joint nearby and considered marijuana a “value-changing drug” that could open up “doors of perception.” But he also cautioned his fans and fellow artists against relying too heavily on it: “I do find, that with judicious use, there’s some value in it. But most of the things we use don’t let you leave them alone.”
A lot has changed when it comes to the legality, culture, and business of cannabis since the late 1990s. In 1996, a year before Carlin and Stewart’s chat, California became the first U.S. state to legalize medicinal use of the plant. Now in the U.S., recreational use of cannabis is legal in eight states, plus Washington, D.C., and medicinal use is allowed in an additional 22.
In step, an industry has begun to blossom around legalized weed. With it, new jobs with delightfully weird titles have emerged, from budtender—the person behind the counter at a weed dispensary—to ganjapreneur—someone looking for new ways to monetize the drug and expand the commercial weed landscape.
It’s also become a go-to remedy for countless ailments: from pain management to creative block. Which, when considering weed’s effect on creativity, prompts the question: What exactly is the relationship between cannabis and creativity? And does cannabis enhance creative thought?
“The answer isn’t black and white,” explains Dr. Alice Weaver Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in deep brain stimulation, as well as the brain’s relationship with creativity. But, after extensive research, she has concluded that part of the answer may lie in the brain’s frontal lobe.
Her findings note that people with high creativity (yes, this article will be full of unintended puns) have more activity in the frontal lobe than those with lower creative abilities. Marijuana use can also stimulate that area of the brain, leading Flaherty, and a number of other neuroscientists, to draw a connection between cannabis and creative output.
“Marijuana is a stimulant. And most stimulants, in the short term anyway, boost output of all kinds,” Flaherty explains. But she also notes that there are nuances—and caveats.
Most recently, Flaherty’s research has focused on how artists (whether painters, writers, musicians, composers, or engineers) “get into the zone,” she says. And when it comes to marijuana’s effect on triggering creative productivity, she adds that this can depend on dosage and a person’s capacity for restraint. “Like pretty much everything, there can too much or too little,” she says. “So somebody who’s trying to boost their motivation to be creative very often goes too far and gets themselves totally wired so they can’t concentrate.”
She adds that the effects of weed on a creative brain also depend on a given artist’s personality. “A very anxious creative person may get some benefit from cannabis. In calming them down, it could help their creativity,” Flaherty explains. “But for someone who’s already in the zone, and who’s not too anxious to work, it might push them into a place of being too laid back.”
Fred Tomaselli, Super Plant, 1994. © Fred Tomaselli. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York.
Flaherty and other neuroscientists in her field aren’t the only ones trying to make sense of marijuana’s connection to creativity. Artists themselves are curious, too—especially given the growing number of cannabis strains, weed-related products, and assorted paraphernalia being heavily marketed across the country. (For instance, a recently launched app, called Cannacopia, lets you search for different strains based on desired effect; a search for creativity turns up Platinum Jack, Sour Lemon Diesel, White Yurkle, Chemdawg, and Columbian Gold, among others.)
Musician and songwriter Aaron Lammer (who has written tracks with Chance the Rapper and Bon Iver, and is also the co-founder of the popular website Longform) has devoted a podcast, called Stoner, to the subject. On the show, Lammer invites guests—from artists and musicians to cannabis entrepreneurs and experts—to talk weed. Conversations often start with the question “When was the first time you ever smoked weed?”
The idea for Stoner was born when Lammer (who smokes pot recreationally himself) realized that there was a dearth of information available about experiences with weed, despite the growing number of creatives he saw using it. “I was curious about how different people used it,” he tells me. “But surprisingly, there wasn’t a ton of information being shared online, so I wanted to start building up a base of knowledge.”
On many of Stoner’s 26 episodes, the dialogue turns to how weed influences guests’ artistic practices—whether it’s novels by Tao Lin, films by Benjamin Dickinson or Sebastián Silva, or poetry by Mira Gonzalez. Individual responses to the drug vary, and reflect the fluctuating use and efficacy of pot over the course each artist’s adult life.
Dickinson, for instance, had a period of extreme productivity when he first started smoking weed in college. “Suddenly I was making connections I’d never made. I felt creatively free. I felt a new connection to the absurd and the bizarre and a comfort being in those places, so it really was a wonderful tool,” he tells Lammer. But after 9/11, when Dickinson was struggling with the tragedy and using weed to self medicate, “it sort of turned on me,” he explains. “It was a like an inversion. Whereas before I was feeling expansive, social, openhearted, open to new ideas, I started becoming paranoid and isolated and antisocial.”
Lin, on the other hand, took up the drug later in life, and these days includes a dose of weed in his meticulous daily routine. He says it bolsters his creative process.
“When it comes to both creativity itself, and creativity as it pertains to using marijuana, no two people are the same,” Lammer offers, reflecting on what he’s found through his interviews. “Most people who are capable of having a creative, energetic, focused, productive experience have experimented a lot on themselves, and have learned to be patient when it comes to figuring out what works for them and what doesn’t—whether it’s marijuana they’re experimenting with, or something else.”
Artist Fred Tomaselli, whose paintings nod to the psychoactive effects of drugs (and sometimes include marijuana leaves as materials), has done his fair share of experimentation. While he doesn’t smoke weed regularly, and explains that “working in the studio under the influence of cannabis is mostly an unmitigated disaster,” he also admits that “it occasionally has its uses.”
“Sometimes, I need to stop being so self-conscious and just goof around. I’ve found that cannabis is good for loosening me up while I play around in the sketchbook,” he explains. “Maybe the aphasia that it induces makes me forget to be so uptight. It can be helpful in creating a free associative state that occasionally leads to the germ of an idea worth pursuing later.”
Beyond marijuana’s calming effects, Tomaselli explains that he occasionally uses it as a means to break up long painting stints. “When I’m putting in long hours of rote work, a very occasional puff, midway through the process, can take the edge off the drudgery,” he says.
“In my case, it can be quite funny and a little weird to be actually arranging and gluing pot leaves onto the surface of my pictures while smoking the same substance,” Tomaselli continues. “Is the pot telling me what to do with it from inside my own brain? Is that just the thinking of a total stoner?”
Like Tomaselli, other artists who incorporate marijuana into their creative process do so strategically—after a fair amount of trial and error. Poet and journalist Mario Alejandro Ariza notes that he “composes stoned, edits sober.”
Artist Gina Beavers, who makes surreal, heavily impastoed paintings that zoom in on food and women’s grooming rituals, has learned that smoking weed just before bed (as opposed to other times of day) can have a positive effect on her practice. “If I smoke weed and then go to bed, I’ll have mild hallucinatory effects as I’m drifting off to sleep and get creative ideas,” she explains.
These ideas occasionally take shape as paintings for Beavers: “My abstract works were a combination of things I had seen and things I had imagined, and for sure I made weed-inspired works that fit in the latter category.” But she also highlights the occasional unintended, potentially counterproductive consequence, “like feeling insecure about that dumb thing you just said, or where the nachos are going to come from!” she quips.
Like Ariza, she emphasizes the importance of editing cannabis-inspired ideas. “A few times, I’ve been mulling over how to solve some issue and weed will give me ideas, but not always ones I go with,” Beavers says. “I have to wait and look at the solutions in the light of day.”
Artist Chris Bogia has also become an adept self-editor, when it comes to ideas that emerge while high. Some, he runs with. “Weed has helped me expand and rearrange concepts and ideas I’ve already formed slowly over time without cannabis,” he says. This is true of one series of drawings, “Plants Vs Zombies,” in particular, where weed has spurred “new approaches and variations that will sometimes become new drawings.”
But the same isn’t true when Bogia is brainstorming new work. “Often when I think of completely-from-scratch concepts while under the influence of cannabis, I wake up the next morning and I’m like, um, no,” he explains.
Over the course of my email conversation with Bogia, this phenomenon played out in real time. Late one night, I received a note from him: “I got super high on the way home tonight and during the last leg of my journey had a funny thought about my work on a decorative plate and—boom—I figured out this huge upcoming work that I just couldn’t figure out for the last year.”
He sent me an update the next day. “This morning I am less sure the idea is the amazing solution I was hoping for, but I still like it enough to do a more detailed rendering than the quick sketch from last night,” he wrote. “I’d say it was helpful, but not a silver bullet miracle solution to creativity.”
It’s an experience that illustrates the effect of cannabis on creativity, which neuroscientists and artists agree on: While smoking weed can buoy creative thought, artists probably shouldn’t rely on it to loosen bouts of creative block or inspire a brilliant new idea.
“It’s not like I think creative people should never use marijuana, but I don’t think they should bet on it helping them,” Flaherty offers.
And Tomaselli’s conclusion on the subject? “Pot is no substitute for innate creativity, talent, or discipline, and anyone who thinks so must be high!”