Drug Policy

Triumph of the Pill

Why brain doping on campus is no cause for concern

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This past January, the prestigious science journal Nature conducted an online survey asking how many of its readers (who are primarily scientists and academics) had ever used "cognition-enhancing drugs," or brain dope. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the informal survey of 1,400 readers found that "one in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory." Moreover, Nature found that "a high four-fifths thought that healthy adults should be able to take the drugs if they want to."

In the absence of any large-scale studies measuring illicit prescription drug use among professionals, these results provide a highly suggestive counterpoint to the increasing hysteria over the abuse of "study drugs" by college students. After all, if some professors are doping up before hitting the books, why shouldn't undergrads do the same?

In fact, over the past decade, prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin—which are typically used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)—have become increasingly available on college campuses. While studies disagree on the prevalence of stimulant "abuse" (that is, non-prescription use) among college students, the numbers suggest that anywhere between five and 15 percent of undergraduates have illicitly used such drugs to improve their academic performance. And while college health officials and various government scolds decry this trend as evidence of "drug abuse" by America's best and brightest, the reality is far from alarming.

Part of the growing concern about stimulants comes from the explosion in legal prescriptions doled out to kids. Between 1993 and 2003 the number of children's doctor's visits resulting in a stimulant prescription jumped from 2.7 million to 6.6 million. Over 10 percent of 10-year-old boys in America are now prescribed some kind of drug to control their unruly behavior, and the average starting age is getting lower. Parents are increasingly told that doping their little ones will make the children happy and successful. In 2000, psychiatrist Peter Breggin testified before Congress that, "Teachers, school psychologists, and administrators commonly make dire threats about their inability to teach children without medicating them." This trend is certainly worrying, not least because the long-term effects of regularly administered stimulants are as yet little understood.

So there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about child doping, particularly given the growing frequency of ADD diagnoses. But what about the strategic use of the same drugs by consenting adults, particularly college students? As usual, the law gets it backwards: While it is perfectly legal to feed—even force feed—Ritalin to a child, unsupervised use by knowledgeable grownups is a crime.

At the same time, it is remarkably easy to score prescription brain drugs at many of America's most prominent universities. A quick survey I conducted of stimulant-using students at Harvard reveals that it's possible to obtain a Ritalin prescription after one 20-minute consultation with a psychiatrist. One student, a sophomore who wishes to remain anonymous, obtained a script for amphetamine salts after just two appointments. He's pretty sure he doesn't have ADD, and he definitely never lied about or exaggerated his symptoms, which featured insomnia more prominently than the ADD hallmark of distractibility. Yet his psychiatrist readily prescribed the drugs. "It's not as if there's some medical authority making this decision for you," he told me afterwards. "Any reasonably capable person could walk out of there with just about whatever [drug]."

Still, there is widespread alarm about the possible health problems arising from unsupervised dosing. "Put the pills in the wrong hands and the results can be dangerous," NBC News warned. Henry Chung, Director of the New York University Student Health Center has warned that, "Students may have some kind of manic reaction or a seizure that could occur from taking these medications." For high doses, Chung is correct. But today's performance-enhancing undergraduates exhibit more responsibility than Chung realizes. One NYU senior I spoke to says it's mainly a case of "every now and again for finals. I don't know anyone who abuses Adderall or Ritalin." Moreover, "because they're prescription you can find out so much about them so you know how you can take it safely."

There is also the claim that student dopers—like testosterone-injecting athletes—are cheating because college is a competitive environment in which participants are obliged to play fair. Of course, this argument ignores the fact that most of the abilities being enhanced by such drugs are already unequally distributed (due to a mixture of biological and socioeconomic factors). Why is doping to achieve "normal" functionality a permissible act for ADD sufferers, but wrong for those seeking better grades or greater knowledge?

As the Nature survey suggests, responsible and successful adults dope up for a variety of professional reasons. There is no evidence that student doping is more dangerous or widespread than that done by their professors. Yet many university authorities are nonetheless determined to close Pandora's box. Unlike their Harvard counterparts, for example, students at the University of Michigan typically have to go through $1000 worth of psychometric tests before psychiatrists are willing to prescribe them any neuro-enhancing drugs. And doctors, of course, are loath to relinquish their power over patients.

It's time for such authority figures to admit that performance-enhancing drugs are already part of everyday life for a great many rational, healthy adults and that their use can no longer be dismissed under the title of "abuse" or "cheating."

Juliet Samuel is a writer living in Boston.

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  1. “Any reasonably capable person could walk out of there with just about whatever [drug].”

    Times sure have changed since my dealings with college student health services. Or have the rules always been different for Harvard students?

  2. I once used like 6 dozen diet red bulls to go 4 days without sleeping during a finals week (all aces yeah).

    Adderal probably would have been cheaper, but I was using my University’s Itchy and Scratchy electronic money that we all get with our meal plan.

  3. Oh please. Yeah, the poor kids at Harvard are just using adderal to make up for their naturally unequal attention spans, which are so bad, after all, that they could only get into HARVARD. They are seeking a performance advantage over their non-using peers, pure and simple, or seeking to keep up with the ones already using.

    Oh wait, here at Reason we argue for legalizing drugs so we have to rationalize away every single negative aspect of their use. But as someone in the middle of a very competitive and tightly curved academic program, who is now arguably at a disadvantage because I don’t want to mess around with prescriptions, this is infuriating.

    Maybe in libertopia everyone should be able to take whatever they want, but you don’t advance that argument by trying to pretend there are no downsides to forcing students to take drugs with dangerous side effects or addictive properties just to stay competitive.

    “Drugs are safe, stooopid!” is not a libertarian principle in the same way that “There is no global warming!” and “Gun ownership can never have negative consequences!” are not libertarian principles just because they would make the argument go away.

  4. custom –

    who’s “forcing students to take drugs”, again?

    But as someone in the middle of a very competitive and tightly curved academic program, who is now arguably at a disadvantage because I don’t want to mess around with prescriptions, this is infuriating

    Aww, life be hard. If you don’t want to take an extra step to get ahead, why do you think there should be restraining legislation and enforcement against those who do?

    Sounds like bitter crab-bucket politics to me.

  5. forcing students to take drugs with dangerous side effects or addictive properties just to stay competitive

    Choice = Force

    New math?

  6. I didn’t even know that Cognition-Enhancing was supposed to be hyphenated. I gots to git me sum o’ dem drugs.

  7. People need adderal to finish reading sentences. “Forcing students… to stay competitive.” The competition is forcing them. Yes, entry into the competition is optional in the first place. No, this has nothing to do with the central point of my last post, which is that it’s silly to try to argue that there are no downsides to allowing risky prescription use to be a de-facto requirement in certain courses of study.

    Next month in reason: Free markets are a great idea, and we’ll prove it by telling you how no one ever lost a job from an obsolete industry!

  8. Hey custom, ever have any coffee or a Red Bull, or even some green tea?

    Cheater! Ban energy drinks now!

    You are a whiny chucklehead.

  9. The competition is forcing them.

    yeah, man, the System is Forcing me to get a job, cut my hair and wear a suit!

    Seriously, custom, once you start talking about competition “forcing” people to do things, you’ve lost the argument:

    “The competition ‘forced’ me to forego my social life and my familial obligations!”

    “The competition ‘forced’ me to get seven hours of sleep, instead of eight!”

    I’m not seeing a substantial difference between foregoing things to get ahead (maybe you work on that project late instead of hitting up happy hour) and taking stimulants to get ahead.

  10. I’ve kept my prescription for Ritalin(ADHD) even though I think I’ve grown out of it and hardly use it anymore. Its just nice to have legal access to another stimulant. It saved my ass many a time in college and other situations.

  11. Ayn,

    Keep hitting that strawman! By all means ignore my point.

    Remember everyone, differences in degree should never equate to differences in kind! This makes our arguments easier! Working hard or having a cup of coffee is just like any other step, up to and including drug abuse, that could be taken to get ahead!

  12. which is that it’s silly to try to argue that there are no downsides to allowing risky prescription use to be a de-facto requirement in certain courses of study

    So an essay which makes no statements regarding the counter argument (in this case, the alleged downsides of mild stimulant use) is explicitly making the statement that the counter-argument doesn’t exist?

  13. OK, custom, please explain how using a stimulant such as caffeine is “different” than using a stimulant such as Adderal.

    By the way, if your answer is “one must be prescribed” or “caffeine is legal” or “we’ve always used caffeine”, you fail, just like I guess you will fail your exams because you refuse to use stimulants that aren’t caffeine.

  14. custom:

    Or realize you don’t need college to get a good job… Maybe you need a college degree for the career path you picked… but no one is forcing you down that path…

    Again… it’s your choice, and you’re crying about the choices that other people are making.

    Nephilium… college drop out.

  15. If God was a college student He would have rested six days, then used Adderall to pull an all-nighter.

  16. Let “Akira” be a lesson to ya’ll if you’re tempted to overdo te nootropes. You don’t want to end up like Tetsuo.

  17. I hope Barry Bonds doesn’t see this thread.

  18. I’d be doing much better in college if I could work longer hours by using electric lights after dark, but I refuse to be let the competition force me into using artificial methods!

  19. That reminds me, I need to pick up more piracetam.

  20. Sorry, but I do see “custom’s” point.
    If using heroin or sticking coathangers through their noses into their medulla oblongatum gave my coworkers an advantage over me, I’d be pissed, too. I wouldn’t try to ban them from doing so, but I’d be pissed.
    (I’d also laugh at them behind their backs, so there would be some up side.)

  21. Hi there.

    “”Drugs are safe, stooopid!” is not a libertarian principle in the same way that “There is no global warming!” and “Gun ownership can never have negative consequences!” are not libertarian principles just because they would make the argument go away.”

    I actually have some sympathy with this view. Reason has plenty of articles or H&R pieces that seem to be really biased against the negatives of libertarian rules (my view: they exist, but are the lesser of two evils; reason writers sometimes seem biased to think that they don’t exist at all)

    But that still does not mean people are being forced. Harvard isn’t known for the hardest grading (not to say most of the people don’t deserve good grades once there, they may well), so even if competition was force (it’s not) it wouldn’t really fit here. Adults can make decisions about whats best for them though, weighing the cost and benefit of each decision. These types of stimulants aren’t dangerous enough for me to really worry about them at all.

  22. Peter Breggin’s in a tough position as a libertarian critic of physiologic psychiatry, which is a term I just made up for using things like drugs, electricity, and surgery for psychiatric treatment. His problem is that the government knob regarding drugs can only be adjusted between “easier to give/get” and “harder to give/get”, with no other knob that can be tuned to autonomy.

  23. I feel obligated to point out that amphetamine salts have been shown to dramatically and substantially increase cardiac risks, including high blood pressure, increased heart rate, sudden death from cardiac arrest, etc. It’s been banned in Canada and the UK, among I believe even more countries, and I think it’s even been taken off the market here in the US.

    While I agree w/ the principle of individual freedoms, when it comes to this particular substance it is very, very important to see a physician and get a legitimate prescription, and if your physician doesn’t require you to pass a cardiac evaluation he/she may not be doing their full due diligence.

    Bottom line, when you are dealing with amphetamines, there are risks, so know the risks and make sure that due to a medical condition you are not at increased risk.

  24. To clarify I think in US and Canada it was taken off then put back on. I think it may still be off-limits in the UK. I’ve known people who traveled internationally and were not able to get their medicines.

  25. Also if you think there are no cardiac risks, you are mistaken. I personally have never had high blood pressure in my life always around 100/65, am very healthy and active, and when I was on this medicine my blood pressure would peak up in the 145/99 range and heart rate increased 15-20 bpm. I stopped taking it out of fears I was taking years off my life.

  26. My guess is that the kids taking these drugs are doing so because they have piss-poor time maangement and self-discipline.

    All-nighters are necessary only if you spend the first 12 weeks of the semester screwing off. If you put in a good solid work day, every day, you can coast into exams, rested and full of knowledge, without needing to take drugs or miss out on any sleep.

    I doubt anybody needs to take drugs to keep up with the competition. They just need to not be an idiot.

  27. when it comes to this particular substance it is very, very important to see a physician and get a legitimate prescription

    I’ve never met a doctor I trust. Most are just as stupid as I am. So I reject your forced paternalism.

  28. Shit. I get to a thread late, and J and R C Dean already said everything I’d wanna.

  29. Competition for mates was fierce on the high-school savannas of the late 1980s. But my genetic heritage gave me an evolutionary advantage in these contests: my curly, fluffy hair was really, really big, and big hair was the equivalent of a male peacock’s tail in those days, a sign of Uber Hotness and sexual desirability.

    Alas. Evil capitalists destroyed my natural advantage via their invention of hair mousse. How could my naturally big hair stand out, when anybody willing to spend a dollar on product could make their hair bigger than anything nature intended, and frizz-free to boot?

    Yes, libertarians, spread your blah blah blah garbage about how the free mousse market is good because it lets everyone reach their Maximum Hair Size Potential, but as someone in the middle of a very competitive and tightly curved dating program, who was arguably at a disadvantage because she don’t want to mess around with alcohol-based styling products which could dry out her hair, this was infuriating.

  30. matt said, “Also if you think there are no cardiac risks, you are mistaken. I personally have never had high blood pressure in my life always around 100/65, am very healthy and active, and when I was on this medicine my blood pressure would peak up in the 145/99 range and heart rate increased 15-20 bpm. I stopped taking it out of fears I was taking years off my life.”

    No cardiac risks are different from mild cardiac risks.

    A quick Google search reveals that it was just Canada (not the US) that pulled Adderall after 20 deaths occurred in 11 years.

    Given the benefits, I’m not sure why any non-innumerate person would worry about Adderall at typical doses.

  31. Yes, like any drug, stimulants have some risks. That is why I advocate responsible adult use. “Responsible adult use” does not include:
    – feeding speed to your child on a daily basis
    – downing lots of speed everyday
    – using the drugs without reading about them and the known potential risks – or having a doctor explain them to you (cardiac problems in some cases would be an example, as you said Matt. The FDA recommends testing for cardiac problems before putting people on regular stimulant doses. For very occasional use of small-to-medium doses, which includes the vast majority of use on campuses, there is little risk for a healthy adult).

  32. I wrote about some of the ways to responsibly upgrade on my blog:

    http://hardcoredynamic.com/blog/2008/06/03/nootropics-and-cognition-part-2/

    Please check it out!

  33. ahhhh the stimulants.

    for future reference: ritalin is way worse than cocaine. worst comedown fucking ever.

    i go to IU and it was so easy to get shit like adderall. granted im sort of in that crowd, but its really prevalent. what i always thought was funny was the price difference during finals. the smart kids would buy it way before as the dealers/kids with scripts would jack up the price heavy later. funnyfunny

  34. for future reference: ritalin is way worse than cocaine. worst comedown fucking ever.

    Funny, for me taking Ritalin orally didn’t have near the effect that some people describe. There was little high and nothing much to come down from. Perhaps I needed to try a higher dose and I had also gotten used to using straight dextroamphetamine (rather than, and better than, Adderall) which may have raised my expectations to much. However, when crushed and snorted Ritalin gave a very similar high to cocaine with about the same duration (i.e. pretty intense but fairly short). Amazing really. I still prefer the generic dextroamphetamine to either though in terms of giving a better high (less intense but longer lasting). It also has the added benefit of being much better (for me anyway) in terms of its functionality for concentration, getting menial tasks done, and generally being a much more outgoing person.

  35. Next thing you know they’ll be taking LSD and spinning perfect webs.

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