Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race, argues that the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is wrong to support marijuana legalization because allowing recreational use is apt to aggravate the state's already high unemployment rate. "There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania," Oz said during a recent Newsmax interview, "so giving them pot so that they stay home is not, I don't think, an ideal move….We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work, gotta give them their mojo, and I don't want marijuana to be a hindrance to that."
Oz, who is still awaiting the results of a very close primary pitting him against businessman David McCormick, not only played a doctor on TV for 13 seasons (a fact that helped win him former President Donald Trump's endorsement); he is also a retired heart surgeon. Given that background, you might suppose that Dr. Oz was drawing on his medical expertise when he averred that a lack of "mojo" is a well-documented side effect of cannabis consumption. Instead he was simply repeating a hoary anti-pot trope that, like many of the claims Oz made on his syndicated talk show, has no firm scientific basis.
The charge that marijuana saps motivation goes beyond the commonsensical observation that the acute effects of cannabis, like the acute effects of alcohol, are generally incompatible with work. It alleges that regular marijuana use has a persistent impact, making people so lazy that they fail at school, neglect their personal responsibilities, and "stay home" rather than go to work or look for a job. Since Oz cited "addiction to marijuana" as a distinct concern, he implied that even moderate cannabis consumption, unlike moderate drinking, makes people disinclined to work for a living.
Harvard psychiatrist Dana Farnsworth put a name to this perceived problem during congressional testimony in 1970. "I am very much concerned about what has come to be called the 'amotivational syndrome,'" he said. "I am certain as I can be…that when an individual becomes dependent upon marijuana…he becomes preoccupied with it. His attitude changes toward endorsement of values which he had not before; he tends to become very easily satisfied with what is immediately present, in such a way that he seems to have been robbed of his ability to make appropriate choices."
A decade and a half later, Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist who directed the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 1973 to 1978, told anti-pot polemicist Peggy Mann that "millions of young people are living as shadows of themselves, empty shells of what they could have been and would have been without pot." In 1989, his first year as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Bill Bennett explained how smoking pot affects young people: "It means they don't study. It causes what is called 'amotivational syndrome,' where they are just not motivated to get up and go to work."
DuPont and Bennett continued promoting that idea for decades, often conflating marijuana "dependence" or heavy use with cannabis consumption in general. In his 1997 book The Selfish Brain, DuPont describes marijuana's impact on its users' life prospects. "Unlike cocaine, which often brings users to their knees, marijuana claims its victims in a slower and more cruel fashion," he says. "It robs many of them of their desire to grow and improve, often making heavy users settle for what is left over in life…. Marijuana makes its users lose their purpose and their will, as well as their memory and their motivation….[Cannabis consumers] commonly just sink lower and lower in their performance and their goals in life as their pot smoking continues. Their hopes and their lives literally go up in marijuana smoke."
In their 2015 book Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America, Bennett and his co-author, Robert A. White, quote that passage from DuPont's book in the course of arguing that cannabis is much more dangerous than commonly believed. "Has anyone alleged anything like the foregoing with tobacco use?" they ask. In fact, many people troubled by the rise of mass-produced cigarettes in the early 20th century alleged that they caused strikingly similar effects. Those parallels suggest that responses to drug use have less to do with the inherent properties of the substance than with perennial fears that are projected onto the pharmacological menace of the day.
Despite its long appeal as a propaganda theme, the idea that smoking pot makes people unproductive remains scientifically controversial. In their 1997 book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, the sociologist Lynn Zimmer and the pharmacologist John P. Morgan examined the evidence and concluded: "There is nothing in these data to suggest that marijuana reduces people's motivation to work, their employability, or their capacity to earn wages. Studies have consistently found that marijuana users earn wages similar to or higher than nonusers."
A 1999 report from the National Academy of Sciences noted that amotivational syndrome "is not a medical diagnosis, but it has been used to describe young people who drop out of social activities and show little interest in school, work, or other goal-directed activity. When heavy marijuana use accompanies these symptoms, the drug is often cited as the cause, but there are no convincing data to demonstrate a causal relationship between marijuana smoking and these behavioral characteristics."
In his 2002 book Understanding Marijuana, Mitch Earleywine, now a professor of psychology at the State University of New York in Albany, sums up the evidence concerning amotivational syndrome this way: "No studies show the pervasive lethargy, dysphoria, and apathy that initial reports suggested should appear in all heavy users. Thus, the evidence for a cannabis-induced amotivational syndrome is weak."
A 2018 systematic review published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that "cross-sectional evidence of a cannabis-specific effect on motivation is equivocal," although "there is partial support from longitudinal studies for a causal link between cannabis use and reduced motivation." A 2022 study of college students, reported in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, cast doubt on that purported causal link. "The results provide preliminary evidence suggesting that college students who use cannabis are more likely to expend effort to obtain reward, even after controlling for the magnitude of the reward and the probability of reward receipt," the researchers reported. "Thus, these results do not support the amotivational syndrome hypothesis."
Fact-checking Oz's claim about the impact of marijuana legalization, Newsweek looked at unemployment rates as of April in the 18 states that allow recreational use. Overall, it found, "the average seasonally adjusted employment rate for those states was around 4%," which was "slightly higher than the national rate" of 3.6 percent. But Newsweek noted that the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania, where marijuana is legal for medical purposes but not for recreational use, was 4.8 percent, "among the highest in the country." And while "states like California, New Mexico and Nevada," where recreational use is legal, had higher-than-average unemployment rates, "many states where marijuana is not fully legalized are also experiencing above average unemployment," including Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas as well as Pennsylvania.
While such crude comparisons do not tell us much, it is fair to say they provide little support for Oz's hypothesis. The link he suggests also seems inconsistent with early research indicating that legalizing medical or recreational use is associated with higher GDP growth and/or higher employment. In Colorado, a 2021 study found, state-licensed recreational sales were "associated with a 0.7 percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate with no effect on the size of the labor force." Given "the lack of a reduction in labor force participation or wages," the researchers concluded, "negative effects on labor supply are likely limited, in line with the existing literature."
Although Newsweek rates Oz's claim as "false," a fairer assessment would be "unproven." As Newsweek notes, Oz "did not state exactly what evidence his claim is based on, nor does there appear to be any publicly available data to support it."
Since the primary is over and Oz, assuming he wins the Republican nomination, now needs to broaden his appeal, the political wisdom of opposing marijuana legalization seems questionable. Just a quarter of Pennsylvanians share Oz's position, according to a 2021 Muhlenberg College poll, while 58 percent disagree with him. Support for legalization is even higher in national surveys. The latest Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans, including 83 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans, thought marijuana should be legal.