From peyote to acid to alcohol to weed, artists have a long and storied history of using substances to alter perception, access different emotional states, and enhance the creative process. A 2003 study showed that around half of cannabis users believe it promotes creativity. Another study suggested that one of the effects of THC on the brain may be to help generate thoughts in an improvisational, free-flowing way, a process called divergent thinking.
Examples abound. The late comic George Carlin, known for his provocative humor, said in an interview, “Pot opens windows and doors that you may not be able to get through any other way.” Carl Sagan wrote anonymously that he found cannabis stimulated his thought process in areas other than his primary field of astrophysics. For instance, he described a series of inspirations while using cannabis that led him to write essays on what he called the “origins and invalidities” of racism. From the ancient Egyptians to contemporary musicians, countless artists have gotten high. There is even some evidence that Shakespeare smoked.
Cannabis can add color and depth to otherwise ordinary experiences and thereby help magnify the creative eye. It also relaxes the inner critic. Charlotte Burnam (a pseudonym), a comic book writer and visual artist who has worked for ten years in the cannabis industry, describes her first experiences with pot: “Smoking weed in my teens helped me relax around people and drop my hang-ups … I felt more free to be imaginative while stoned.” She goes on to describe how it was easy to compare her work with others and to perpetually fear that she fell short. But comparison only led to despair; weed has helped Charlotte remain focused on her own work instead.
Others report a subtler effect. The enhanced patience and absorption that smoking can induce may come in handy; even making art can have its tedious moments. Dave S., a Bay Area photographer who works for a nonprofit says, “Sometimes I kind of know where I’m going, but cannabis helps me get a little closer. It puts me in a different head space and, for long tasks like editing and sequencing my photos, it keeps me company.”
A British study from 2012 backs up the idea that THC’s effect on creative processes can differ widely from person to person. Gary Walker, a culinary producer, private chef and former co-star on Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates, says, “It relieves me from anxiety and depression and provides some pain relief. I sleep better, and I have a great appetite. All of these things contribute to a higher—pun intended—quality of life, which in turn, leads to increased levels of creativity.”
He describes a moment when he realized that incorrectly stored kale chips easily turned to “kale dust.” But instead of trashing the batch, he sprinkled it on a dish and enjoyed the flavor in a different form. “After that pot-induced revelation I was using kale dust on everything. I now call brainstorming on pot my ‘medicated meditation.’” Though many people recommend sativas like Kali Mist and Jack Herer for the creative edge, Gary finds his inspiration in indica-heavy hybrids like Girl Scout Cookies or Gorilla Glue.
It’s worth noting, however, that a 2015 study from Leiden University in the Netherlands correlated consuming higher doses of THC with lower levels of creativity. And some of the creative types interviewed also note that they felt their creative edge diminish over time with frequent use. Charlotte Burnam says that when she hit a period of unproductivity in her work she took a break from smoking: “I needed to set boundaries with my marijuana relationship… I went back to smoking flower after I accomplished something on a list of daily goals I made. Now,” she writes, “I have created a healthy balance between marijuana, creativity, and productivity.”
Others also suggested that taking a tolerance break, as well as finding new ways to shake up the creative matrix—like spending time in nature, reading outside of their usual field, or trying their hand in a new medium—may offer the needed boost.
But Charlotte hasn’t given it up altogether. On her recent project of writing and illustrating a comic book about her experiences in the marijuana industry, she says, “I prefer weed to be a part of the process. I really believe marijuana has helped my creativity by relaxing myself out of what society told me I should be as an artist.”
Danielle Simone Brand is a mother of two, a die-hard idealist, and a breaker of conventions. She holds a BA from Dartmouth College and an MA from American University and has worked as a staff writer, an academic editor, and a researcher on issues of international conflict resolution.