College PC

Why Banning Smart Drugs for College Students Is Impossible, Evil

Only the handicapper general would do such a thing.

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Should college students be allowed to take Adderall and Modafinil to improve their academic performance, or should universities treat these so-called "smart drugs" the same way Major League Baseball treats steroids? I attended a debate on the subject at George Washington University last night, and came away convinced that banning smart drugs is not only impractical—it's profoundly evil.

The debate was hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S.; Nicole Vincent and Eric Racine argued against the use of smart drugs, Dr. Anjan Chatterjee and Dr. Nita Farahany argued for them. The moderator polled the audience before the debate: more people opposed smart drugs than supported them, though quite a few people were undecided. This meant that I was in the minority—I believed (albeit weakly) that smart drugs ought to be permitted on sheer practicality grounds. Prohibition almost always drives illicit substances underground, making consumption more dangerous but no less prevalent. While I was indifferent on the question of whether the use of smart drugs is moral, I presumed banning them would be unwise (not to mention unlibertarian).

But the case for legal smart drugs is much stronger. As Farahany—a Duke University professor and director of Duke Science and Society—put it, the opportunity to improve one's cognitive functioning is "inherently valuable":

What if taking a smart drug gives us the capacity to study harder, longer, and better such that we cure cancer, or develop tools for staying better in touch, for solving social ills, or for improving our overall happiness? Shouldn't we encourage rather than ban these opportunities? Improving our brain functioning can influence important outcomes for individuals, like making them more successful at work, enhancing their earning potential, alleviating their likelihood of experiencing social and economic difficulty and improving their overall well-being. Widespread improvement in cognitive function would result in widespread societal benefits like economic gains or even reducing errors… Improving our brains is inherently valuable in and of itself.

If smart drugs confer benefits on some of the people who use them, Farahany argued, it's arbitrary and cruel to prohibit people from enjoying them—just as it would be arbitrary and cruel to prohibit people from wearing shoes that let them walk faster, or coats that fix their back problems, or glasses that improve their eyesight (which, hey, actually exist).

Vincent, an associate professor of philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University, argued that the availability of smart drugs would ultimately deprive students of choice, since everyone would have to take them in order to neutralize any competitive advantage they provide. But it's impossible not to extend that logic to other advantages; on what grounds could colleges ban smart drugs but allow private tutors? Students don't spend equal amounts of time studying; should students who want to visit the library for a couple extra hours be prohibited from doing so? This argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would require deliberately sabotaging students who enjoy both natural and earned advantages—a situation not unlike the dystopic nightmare of Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, which Farahany referenced in her rebuttal to Vincent.

One could argue, as Vincent's side did, that such advantages ought to be specifically prohibited in the campus environment, just as performance enhancing drugs are prohibited in sports. But Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, countered that only certain advantages were prohibited in sports; professional golfers, for instance, are allowed to take drugs that improve their putting, he said. Farahany, for her part, was inclined to allow a wider swath of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports but rejected the comparison. Baseball, after all, is just a game. We can debate what kind of skills we want the game to test and what level of enhancement makes the viewing experience optimal. The stakes aren't the same for students—college is a means of societal advancement, not a spectator sport.

The invention of the washing machine meant that lower income people—particularly women—could spend less time washing clothes and more time engaged in intellectual pursuits. Similarly, the increased efficiency offered by smart drugs could give students the opportunity to do more of what they value. This is a good in its own right.

I wasn't the only one convinced, as it turns out. The moderator polled the audience a second time after the debate was finished. A majority now agreed that smart drugs should be permitted on college campuses. 

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37 responses to “Why Banning Smart Drugs for College Students Is Impossible, Evil

  1. When everyone’s super, no one will be.

    1. When everyone’s a TOP. MEN., no one will be.

      We are talking about higher education after all.

      1. Not everyone can be a Top Man. We Top Men need proles, after all. #TopLivesMatter

        1. Well, some people have to be the BOTTOM.

  2. the availability of smart drugs would ultimately deprive students of choice

    Freedom is slavery, etc.

    I’m hard pressed to think of a case of these types of race to the bottom fears have really played out.

  3. Viagra provides a competitive advantage, too. We all need to be limp-dicked, drooling idiots for equality.

    1. limp-dicked, drooling idiots for equality

      Nice bumper sticker.

        1. Hee, hee. *fit*

        2. You sir are a dick, and the sole reason I have no sympathy for you puny weak planet…now I shall go lick my eyeballs until that image fades.

  4. There’s two major groups opposed to this sort of thing.

    1. ‘Top Men’ who are worried that a smarter populace might start question why they need ‘Top Men’ in the first place – or at least so many of them.

    2. The second group are ‘bio-ethicists’ who always need to decry any potential change from the human status-quo. ‘Violating Human Dignity’ is always a go-to reason for these idiots to want to ban something, and when that fails they’ll decry the ‘access gap’ between ‘rich’ and ‘slightly less rich’ (they like to call them ‘poor’ but they’re always talking about the less well-off in the West and never about those who are *genuinely poor*).

    Both guys are just moving early to protect their phoney-bologna jobs gentlemen!

    1. Does it really work? One young man, who I cared for, took it because of the symptoms of ADD. He had grades improved over his high school grades.

      I was told that I could expect my grades to be low B average in college. Fact was, without any medication, I graduated with honors from college, as well. I think that motivation to do well in college (we are paying for it!) might actually trump the use of the amphetamines. Sadly, there are downsides to taking medication in the absence of actual disease.

  5. The invention of the washing machine meant that lower income people?particularly women?could spend less time washing clothes and more time engaged in intellectual pursuits.

    Yeah, like posting on Hit & Run.

    I quite like the idea of being Handicapper-General. What’s the pay like?

    1. I quite like the idea of being Handicapper-General. What’s the pay like?

      It is equal. Everything is equal. Equal is good.

    2. It pays nuthin…unless you’re corrupt

      1. Woohoo!

  6. A majority now agreed that smart drugs should be permitted on college campuses.

    While the rest of the audience quivered in their safe space?

    1. You know who else quivered in their space?…

      1. Robin Hood?

      2. Michael J Fox?

  7. No mention of “HARRISON BERGERON”!
    For shame reasonites.
    http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html
    They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

    1. Have a cup of coffee, and try again.

  8. We kind of have the Harrison Bergeron-system going right now. I’d expect a regulated system allowing “smart drugs” would only make it more so. The debate seems irrelevant to the current situation as Universities aren’t testing for these drugs and no one in any position to do so is calling for them to be made available otc.

  9. Other reasons to permit smart drugs for the masses.

    1.) Prices for these drugs are currently skyrocketing at the pharmacy. A month supply of generic is over 200 hundred out of pocket. A larger market that can’t get the drugs through insurance will provide opportunity for competition to drive prices down to something more reasonable.

    2.) Attempts to prohibit smart drugs from reaching normal people are causing undue burdens on the people with diagnosed conditions that rely on these drugs for treatment. You are only allowed to get a prescription for a one month supply of smart drugs no refills. Your doctor is not allowed to call a refill into the pharmacy. You must show up one month prescription in hand every single month to get your drugs.

    3.) There are basically no side effects to these drugs. Besides making it easier to concentrate the right brand can clear up your sinuses and suppress hunger. If you take more than your recommended dose you’ll probably only end up counting ceiling tiles until it wears off.

    1. 4.) Because people have a right to put what they want into their own body.

    2. 1. The price for Modafinil (Brand name -Provigil) remains high due to illicit non-manufacture.
      Teva (who bought Cephalon) entered into an agreement with a number of generic manufacturers where by Teva would pay them not to sell their generic version of the drug for four years. Uncertainty over patents made this worthwhile not-doing.

      The price for mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall) dropped considerably once the patent expired. Prices only began to rise when the DEA, in a genuinely successful example of their ability to restrict the supply of controlled substances, responded to growing non-therapeutic use of prescription amphetamine containing products, severely reduced the permitted production quotas. Winning!
      During the drought, it required multiple calls to individual pharmacies just to try and track down the supplies. The clearing price for the least desirable generics was above the pre-drought brand price.

    3. Adderall is schedule II and basically has a similar side effect profile to other amphetamines (asterisk – the clever thing about it is that by mixing different forms of the drug, Shire were able to produce a drug that had a much longer effect, with a more gradual release and great reduction of some of the jitteryness and other unpleasant side-effects of the previous frontline treatments like dexedrine.

      Provigil is schedule IV, with a relatively low potential for abuse. However, it has a number of high-frequency side-effects, the most notable of which is a nasty headache.

      In most states, a doctor can write a number of prescriptions (usually 3) for Adderall, with “may fill after” dates on them. Whether or not this is permitted is decided at the State level.

  10. Here is a classic problem — the question itself assumes a statist police power. The proper response (not an answer) is “who the fuck cares”, “it don’t make me no never mind”, “it’s nobody’s business”, and other variations. It is entirely up to the people who might or might not take it. Morality has nothing to do with it, other than it being immoral for anyone else to presume that it is any of their business.

    Self-control: the right and duty to be responsible for yourself and your property, regardless of harm to self or the distaste of others.

  11. Vincent, an associate professor of philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University, argued that the availability of smart drugs books would ultimately deprive students of choice, since everyone would have to take read them in order to neutralize any competitive advantage they provide.

    1. the availability of higher education deprives students of choice, since they would have to attend blah blah blah

      this game is fun!

  12. I haven’t followed any of this data. Is the learning “permanent”? As much as any is? What I mean is, do people who study while on adderall retain more information than the control population, 6 months later when both are not on the drug.

    Or, is this something where you have to keep taking the drug to maintain the benefit?

    If there is no material risk, and you only have to take the drug for a brief period of time, then it sounds good to me.

    If it’s a “Flowers for Algernon” situation where you have to keep taking it to maintain the benefit, then I’m less enthusiastic.

    1. if you want to maintain the “artificially” high level of focus or attention you’d have to keep taking it but you wouldn’t forget stuff you learned by stopping. it only increases concentration not intelligence (for at least the usual suspects, pretty sure nobody has figured out a smart drug that actually affects fluid or functional intellect)

    2. You are misunderstanding, Bubba, though I can’t blame you because the article gives a patently false understanding of the issue at hand. These aren’t “smart drugs”. They are mostly just stimulants. They allow you to work and study longer with less need for sleep. It’s an extreme version of guzzling coffee.

      It doesn’t make you smarter, but it does allow you to work far past your limits, which does give short term advantages, especially in a cram/all-nighter lifestyle. However, it amplifies the problems with that form of studying, which has always been bad for long-term memory.

    3. You are misunderstanding, Bubba, though I can’t blame you because the article gives a patently false understanding of the issue at hand. These aren’t “smart drugs”. They are mostly just stimulants. They allow you to work and study longer with less need for sleep. It’s an extreme version of guzzling coffee.

      It doesn’t make you smarter, but it does allow you to work far past your limits, which does give short term advantages, especially in a cram/all-nighter lifestyle. However, it amplifies the problems with that form of studying, which has always been bad for long-term memory.

  13. Kudos for the Harrison Bergeron reference 🙂 It’s a perfect example when discussing “unfair” advantages of all sorts.

    But it’s really misleading to refer to what we have now as “smart drugs” – they’re blunt instruments, and have very narrow therapeutic indices. The Yerkes?Dodson law shows how finicky the human brain is, and psychostimulants (by nature) push arousal towards the right.

    The therapeutic effects of psychostimulants are largely dependent on pharmacokinetic effects, where slow/sustained delivery enhances tonic firing of DA and NE neurons in the prefrontal cortex (good), and pulsatile delivery (i.e. non-medical use) globally enhances phasic firing of DA and NE neurons (addiction, euphoria, anxiety). This is drawn from my copy of Stahl’s Essential Psychopharmacology (3rd edition), page 890.

    Modafinil is the closest thing that we have to a “smart drug”, because it’s not really a stimulant in the normal sense of things. We simply don’t have enough research to say with confidence that it’s a true cognitive enhancer (i.e. we can’t say that students won’t need to study as much or understand abstract concepts more easily).

    (sidenote: is this seriously my first comment? I’ve been reading Reason for years, and I’ve never commented before??!?)

    1. The real irony is that the idea that some drugs are “smart drugs” is almost entirely due to sensationalist reporting, starting way back in the 1930’s. Vaughan Bell, over at Mind Hacks, documented this in “The labels change, the game remains the same”: http://mindhacks.com/2012/06/1…..-the-same/

  14. The real question is: do these drugs make you smarter, or merely allow you to work past your limits, often to the edge of oblivion? We all know that the answer is the latter.

    If they made you smarter, then I could accept the premise of this article. However, they don’t. They simply make you ignore your physical needs to squeeze more waking hours into the day. These are methamphetamines, with serious side effects, and even the main desired effect is a nasty one. It is addictive in every sense and damaging to your long term health.

    If you cannot achieve success in your chosen field of study without such drugs, there are two possibilities. Either the expectations are unreasonable or you just aren’t good enough and need to drop down to an easier major or take fewer classes. If you can’t keep up without drugs that have long term, cumulative detrimental effects, then what are you going to do when you get to the workforce? Can you keep drugging yourself for the next forty years of work?

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