A double-edged sword

Cannabis use can stimulate creative entrepreneurial ideas, researchers find — but warn it comes at a cost


Cannabis is often anecdotally associated with creativity. Artists, musicians, writers, and many other creative types often use it, and claim that it helps them think outside of the box — to achieve new creative heights. 

Which might actually be true, a new study from Washington State University (WSU) has found. According to the researchers, led by Dr. Ben Warnick, an entrepreneurship professor at WSU, cannabis use does seem to stimulate original thought and unique ideas — but, it’s also a double-edged sword. Without adequate business experience or someone else to act as an idealistic anchor, cannabis users’ ideas, while often passionate and original, can get somewhat unrealistic. 

“This was really the first study to look at cannabis use — or really any kind of drug use — and its implications for entrepreneurs,” Warnick says. “And we found both benefits and drawbacks that people should be aware of.”

Going into the study, Warnick and his team of researchers expected there to be some kind of observable difference in a cannabis users’ creative acumen, and that of non-users. What they didn’t expect to find, however, is that the relationship between cannabis use and creative entrepreneurial ideas is also heavily dependent on the person’s passion for, and experience with the business. 

For the study, titled “Head in the clouds? Cannabis users’ creativity in new venture ideation depends on their entrepreneurial passion and experience” Warnick teamed up with Dr. Alex Kier, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship, and several WSU psychology professors. 254 entrepreneurs participated in the study; all completing a new-venture ideation-task, wherein they generated as many ideas for a new business as possible. Each participant also answered questions about their business experience, their passion for entrepreneurship and their personal cannabis use patterns.

Participants were then separated into two groups: cannabis users (who had used more than 20 times in the past month) and non-users. Though, none of the participants were actually high during the study, Warnick notes.

Nevertheless, the cannabis users in the study still had more original ideas than non-users — coming up with ideas like weightless, gravity-free virtual reality workouts. 

“It’s really important to creativity that you don’t filter your ideas before they get a chance to really prove themselves,” Warnick explains. “So Cannabis has these cognitive effects of opening the brain and reducing inhibition, so users are less likely to be critical and to judge ideas.”

That can be extremely helpful when it comes to firing off interesting, free-flowing, unique and creative concepts and connections during a business brainstorming session. However, it can also lead to practicality problems. Because while cannabis users had more original ideas than non-users, they were notably less-realistic as well. 

However, Warnick adds, just because someone uses cannabis doesn’t mean their ideas are always more original. According to their findings, entrepreneurial “passion for inventing” boosts the originality of cannabis users’ ideas — to the detriment of their feasibility. Conversely, entrepreneurial experience works the other way: the more experience a person has with starting businesses, the more realistic their entrepreneurial ideas tend to be. 

In other words: the view might be great with your head in the clouds, but that doesn’t mean you’re seeing it clearly. 

“[Successful ideas] aren’t just original ideas that are different, but also ones that actually have legs and some feasibility and usefulness to the market,” Warnick says. 

“The implication is that, being a cannabis user, or having someone on your team who is, can help with these brainstorming processes,” Warnick explains. “But it’s probably better to either quit using cannabis for a while before you start, or have someone else who’s not a cannabis user to help with the feasibility and more pragmatic stages of thinking.”

Because of cannabis’ status as a schedule I substance, research like this has been stifled and forbidden for decades. So, not much is known about the long-term or lasting effects of cannabis use on people or their thought processes. 

That’s finally starting to change. And thanks to researchers like Warnick and the team behind this paper we’re starting to better understand the potential uses and the limitations of cannabis. 

“There are clearly both benefits and drawbacks to being a cannabis user when it comes to creativity,” Warnick says. “There’s a lot of claims out there, and I think they should be put to the test.”