Klosterman on Drugs


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.