The New York Times reports on the widespread use of prescription stimulants as study aids among students competing to get into top colleges. These kids aren’t partying: they’re working. And unlike the false impression of improved performance that alcohol gives, the improved performance from the amphetamine-type stimulants is perfectly genuine. But that doesn’t mean the kids – and the adults who do the same thing anren’t getting hurt.
Using stimulants doesn’t create energy; it just borrows it, at a ruinous rate of interest. Sometimes – in military settings, for one obvious example – the short-term gains cover the longer-term costs. But it’s a tricky business, and of course one long-term effect of stimulant abuse is impaired judgment, especially about drug-taking.
It’s a pure case of the Schelling “hockey helmet” problem: what Robert Frank calls a “smart-for-one-dumb-for-all” situation. The number of spots at Swarthmore doesn’t go up; all the students can do is jockey for position. They’d be better off, as a group, if no one was using, but any individual who doesn’t use finds himself at a competitive disadvantage. And of course the rat race continues thoughout a career in any of the professions, the stakes rising with increasing income inequality.
The problem will only get more complex as pharmaceutical technology develops. The current stimulants are sometimes called “steroids for the brain,” but the analogy isn’t precise; the anabolic steroids build lasting strength rather than merely boosting immediate performance. But scientists are working right now on genuine cognitive enhancers: drugs that will stimulate the growth of brain cells. The advantage they confer will be genuine, but it would be insanely optimistic to imagine that messing with brain chemistry won’t have bad side-effects, or that all of those side-effects, over many years of use, will be detected in routine clinical trials lasting a few months.
The use of amphetamine-type stimulants by those who don’t have attention-deficit disorders (or the much less common narcolepsy) is almost certainly a bad deal socially. That’s much less obvious about the use of true cognitive enhancers, once they have been developed; there might be not much social benefit in improving the IQs of all our litigators – after all, someone is going to win the case, and someone is going to lose it, no matter how smart the lawyers are – but improving the IQs of all of our scientists (or policy analysts, for that matter) might pay big dividends.
One thing, however, is clear: our existing ways of thinking about “drug abuse” and dealing with it through lawmaking, enforcement, and persuasion, have very little relevance to the problems posed by the stimulants and the cognitive enhancers. Their abuse is not like the abuse of recreational drugs; the risks and the motivations of the users are different. Neither enforcement and prevention messages is likely to do much good, but the smart-for-one-dumb-for-all structure of the problem makes a laisser-faire clearly inappropriate.
So it would be a mistake to treat this an an opportunity to open one more front in the drug wars, and an equal mistake to simply allow unrestricted competitive use of stimulants. As Lincoln said about the Civil War, “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”
Right now, I don’t see much disenthrallment on the horizon.