Drug Policy

Klosterman on Drugs

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Chuck Klosterman has written two terrific think pieces the last couple of months on pharmacological freedom. The first was a piece in ESPN: The Magazine that really nails the lapses in logic associated with the anti-steroid hysteria sweeping through professional sports.

The second is his column from last month's Esquire . He riffs on the controversial new drug propranolol, which has the ability to erase—or at least sedate—traumatic memories to make them less potent. Klosterman eloquently and non-dogmatically explains why it ought to be legal to let some people create new pasts for themselves, and in the process really encapsulates what's wrong with drug prohibition in general:

As is so often the case with scientific innovations that feel like hypothetical problems, it's easy to imagine dystopian worst-case scenarios involving propranolol. What if the government used this drug to intensify the brutality of warfare, knowing the long-term cost on soldiers could be chemically mitigated? What if people used it simply because they didn't want to fixate over ex-girlfriends or the 1982 NFC championship? It would seem that propranolol—like virtually everything else invented by man—has a short-term upside and a long-term consequence. The small picture provides benefits for victims of genuine pain; the big picture suggests a confused society that consciously elects to expunge the pain that makes us human. But perhaps there is a third picture that's even bigger: Do people have the right to create their reality? Who gets to decide the size of someone's life?

For a variety of reasons, the premise of taking a pill that changes your relationship with a memory seems scary. But we are already doing this all the time; our current means are just less effective. People get drunk in order not to care about things. People watch escapist movies to distract themselves from the stress of real life. Most significantly, we all distort the emotive meaning of our own past, usually without even trying; that's what nostalgia is. So let's assume that propranolol was abused to the highest possible degree; let's assume people started taking propranolol to edit every arbitrary memory that contained any fraction of mental discomfort. Ideologically, this would almost certainly be bad for the health of the world. But I still don't think it's something we could ethically stop people from doing.

Oh, but expect them to try.

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  1. One problem with this kind of drug is that pain is very strongly associated with learning – the pain involved when you touch a hot stove as a kid very much drives home the lesson that touching things that are very hot is a bad idea.

    So wouldn’t a drug like propranolol literally make us stupider? We’ll be like a bunch of kids who keep touching hot stoves, which ironically means that propranolol would cause more pain that it relieves.

    Klosterman makes a strange point – he agrees with me that such drug use would make the world a worse place but then says we cannot ethically stop people from doing it. What’s that all about?

  2. Um, I suggest a Google search on “critiques of utilitarianism”. That could conceivably suggest what that’s all about.

  3. Propranolol has been in use for decades as the first practical beta adrenergic blocker, chiefly for cardiac use. I’m on a beta blocker now.

  4. But if you can’t ethically stop people from making the world a worse place, what law, rule, or regulation would not be allowed?

  5. Edit: er…would be allowed

  6. But I still don’t think it’s something we could ethically stop people from doing.

    That’s because you’re not thinking of the children.

  7. what law, rule, or regulation would be allowed?

    Those laws or regulations that prohibit directly harming another individual, perhaps? Admittedly, that answer is just a wild shot in the dark.

    You know, I’m kinda getting that tingly feeling that I’m talking to the man, the myth, the legend…….Dan T. Any truth to that rumor?

  8. Those laws or regulations that prohibit directly harming another individual, perhaps? Admittedly, that answer is just a wild shot in the dark.

    Perhaps. But no society works in this manner. It seems that being indirectly harmed is still not a good thing.


    You know, I’m kinda getting that tingly feeling that I’m talking to the man, the myth, the legend…….Dan T. Any truth to that rumor?

    What fun would it be if I told you?

  9. HOI;

    Laws are made to secure the freedom of the people. You make the world a better place by being a better person. If you don’t like what other people are doing, you can use your freedom to change the world.

    What we shouldn’t do is decide we know better how to run peoples lives than they do themselves.

  10. How long before this becomes abused as a date-rape drug, even through misapplication?

    Not saying that is a reason to ban it at all, but don’t put it past others to come up with that.

  11. I will add that Klosterman’s piece on steroids was excellent and sums up nicely the fan’s hypocrisy of wanting to see guys on steroids but being outraged that they are taking steroids.

    Chuck’s right: football players really are gladiators. We pay to watch them kill each other, we only want the literal deaths to take place a few years down the road.

  12. HOI,

    I may need to start taking propranolol to forget your awful posts.

  13. Guy Montag: I had a similar thought. Criminals who took hostages, or had anything where they needed to deactivate witnesses but didn’t want to be on the hook for murder.

  14. Propranolol has a creepy similarity to Parepin.

  15. jb: I suppose that following taht logic, one could argue that Propranolol could potentially save lives.

  16. My first thought was “like rohypnol.” But reading the article it sounds more like it dulls the emotion of the memory rather than erasing it.

    What if the government used this drug to intensify the brutality of warfare, knowing the long-term cost on soldiers could be chemically mitigated?

    What if they just put it in everyone’s water supply so we’d forget what they promised they’d do if we elected them?

    Propranolol is also used in small doses to prevent familial tremors. Makes it a lot easier to type accurately. Yup, personal experience.

    Reading through the posts here…

  17. “propranolol”

    as in the beta blocker that’s been around for ages?
    IIRC the banded name is “Inderal”

  18. errr. “branded” name.

  19. That’s because you’re not thinking of the children.

    Can they make a pill for that?

  20. Umm, guys you are making propranolol sound like some crazy sedative/hypnotic. It’s been around for years (as others have pointed out) and thousands of people take it chronically for high blood pressure or essential tremor (shaky hands). It has been found to mitigate the effects of very high levels of adrenergic hormones — i.e. cuts down on the long term effect of undergoing the “flight or fight respones”. It is particularly useful in head-injured patients who have uncontrolled adrenalin storms (as a matter of fact I’m rounding in the ICU today and prescribed it to two patients. The fact that it took decades for this effect to come to light and it was never noticed in the thousands who took it under less stressed circumstances should indicate its relatively small impact. Sorry, they haven’t invented soma yet.

  21. RESPONSE dammit, response. I even previewed.

  22. Thanks for the response, BladeDoc, no matter how you spelled it. 🙂

  23. We’ve known that personality resides in neurobiology for decades, yet we seem continuously alarmed by the suggestion that so and so ‘dulls memory’ or ‘affects the pleasure center like heroin’.

    I have an amazing drug that dulls painful memories for a short while and simultaneously affects the pleasure center of the brain like heroin, I call it “Chocolate donut”.

    If it has strongly negative long term side effects, that seems like a reasonable criticism. I’m unmoved by laments that new drugs alter my brain chemistry. Everything I experience alters my brain chemistry.

  24. I am interested in the assertion made that this would make the world a worse place.

    What’s the basis for that assertion? That I will miss out on a lot of unreadable sophmoric poetry?

    I don’t see how the world will be harmed for me if people I don’t know are less traumatized by their negative memories.

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