Notes on Marijuana and the Amotivational Syndrome

Copied from p.229-230 of 'Drugs and Behavior' by William A. McKim. All portions copyright the author.


Amotivational Syndrome

It has sometimes been observed that when a young person starts smoking marijuana there are systematic changes in that person's lifestyle, ambitions, motivation, and possibly personality. These changes have been collectively referred to as the _amotivational syndrome_, whose symptoms are:

"... apathy, loss of effectiveness, and diminished capacity or willingness to carry out complex, long-term plans, endure frustration, concentrate for long periods, follow routines, or successfully master new material. Verbal facility is often impaired both in speaking and writing. Some individuals exhibit greater introversion, become totally involved with the present at the expense of future goals and demonstrate a strong tendency toward regressive, childlike, magical thinking[1]."

There is no doubt that many young individuals have changed from clean, aggressive, upwardly mobile achievers into the sort of person just described at about the same time as they started smoking marijuana. What is not clear, however, is a causal relationship between the loss of middle class motivations and cannabis. Which comes first, the marijuana or the loss of motivations? This is not easy to answer. In fact, there may be no clearcut answer. To begin with, all we know about the amotivational syndrome is a result of a few case histories. These data cannot answer questions about: a) how common the syndrome is; b) whether the marijuana actually caused the change in behavior; or c) if the change is caused by marijuana, if it is best described as a change in all motivations, specific motivations, or something other than motivation, like ability or personality.

It does not appear as though the amotivational syndrome is all that common among marijuana smokers. In one survey[2] a sample of almost 2000 college students was studied. There was no difference in grade point average and achievement between marijuana users and nonusers, but the users had more difficulty deciding on career goals, and a smaller number were seeking advanced professional degrees. On the other hand, other studies have shown lower school averages and higher dropout rates among users than nonusers. In any case these differences are not great. If there is such a thing as amotivational syndrome, its affects appear to be restricted to a few individuals, probably the small percentage who become heavy users.

Laboratory studies provide additional information on the causal relationship between motivation and marijuana. The Mendelson[3] experiment, where hospitalised volunteers worked on an operant task to earn money and marijuana for 26 days, found that the dose of marijuana smoked did not influence the amount of work done by either the casual-user group or the heavy-user group; all remained motivated to earn and take home a significant amount of money in addition to the work they did for the marijuana. It seems clear that marijuana does not cause a loss of motivation.

While marijuana does not specifically diminish motivation, it is clear that cannabis affects attention and memory, and these are intellectual capacities usually considered necessary for success in educational institutions. We know that a significant tolerance develops to these effects and they can be suppressed voluntarily at low doses, but consistent smoking of high doses of marijuana must impede a successful academic career. In fact, achievement motivation must be high indeed in any individual who combines high levels of cannabis use with a successful academic career.

Since most reports of the amotivational syndrome originated in the sixties in North America, what they seem to describe is a tendency for college students to 'drop out' and assume a lifestyle that rejects traditional achievement motivations of their parents' generation. In an effort to understand this rejection it was very easy to believe that it was pharmacological and to dismiss it as 'amotivational syndrome.'

[1] McGlothin, W.H., & West, L.J. (1968). The marihuana problem: An overview. _American Journal of Psychiatry_, vol. 125, 370-378.

[2] Brill, N.Q., & Christie, R.L. (1974).Marihuana and psychosocial adjustment. _Archives of General Psychiatry_, 31, 713-719.

[3] Mendelson, H.H., Kuehnle, J.C., Greenberg, I., & Mello, N.K. (1976). The effects of marihuana use on human operant behavior: Individual data. In M.C. Broude & S. Szara (eds.), _Pharmacology of marihuana_, vol. 2(pp. 643-653). New York: Academic Press.


From: THE NATURAL MIND by Andrew Weil.

p. 60:

When I was a freshman at Harvard, long before many people thought of smoking marihuana, there was plenty of amotivation. It took such forms as sleeping till dinner time and then playing Monopoly all night instead of working and was indistinguishable from amotivation now associated with heavy marihuana use. Heavy marihuana use is a convenient symptom for an amotivated person to add to his list: it is fun, can be done with other people, angers grownups, and so on. If it is not too late to find a rural college where marihuana is still unknown, I would predict that the amotivated people there would become the heavy marihuana smokers once the drug appeared on campus. If marihuana were the cause of amotivation, one would expect that amotivation could be cured by taking away the marihuana, but this is not the case. Therefore, it makes more sense to see amotivation as a cause of heavy marihuana smoking rather than the reverse.

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