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The Smartness Scandal: Is Our System Breeding Drug Abuse?

06/05/2014 15:45 BST | Updated 06/07/2014 10:59 BST

As a society, we like to associate drug abuse with neglectful parenting, with kids who don't care about school, and with those who drop out of 'The System.' We like to think that our formidable edifices of education and high-wage employment breed success. The university is a place for improvement. The workforce is where we realize our potential; it is the vehicle through which we translate our skills into profit. So to excel in school is to excel in life. To land a competitive job and advance up the career ladder is to make something of yourself. This is what we tell our children. This is what we tell ourselves. But what if it's all a lie?

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Imagine this: You're an undergrad at Oxford. White, male, 20 years old, and with above average grades. You are balancing academics, extra-curricular activities, and a social life. You work hard and are doing fairly well, but there is always pressure to perform better. Grading is on a curve, so you are always competing with your classmates (just as you will soon be competing with them for jobs in a tough economy). You notice students around you who seem to spend impossibly long hours in the library, demonstrate inhuman focus, and have an incredible enthusiasm about mundane subjects they are studying. Then you start to hear about more and more friends taking a 'smart drug' called Modafinil. They say it keeps them focused and alert for 8-hour uninterrupted study sessions. They say it boosts cognition. They say it makes boring subjects interesting. And they say they have more; they offer to sell you a pill for less than the cost of a pint of beer.

This is the situation countless university students find themselves in today, as the use of 'Smart Drugs' like Modafinil, Ritalin, and Adderall becomes increasingly prevalent on campuses throughout the US and UK. As a report by Ivory Research recently found (you can view the full research here) one in ten Cambridge students admit to using the drugs, while 7% at Oxford claim to use them, and an estimated 25% of American college students have taken them. And these numbers are still rising.

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Yet none of the typical explanations for drug abuse seem to fit the situation we are seeing with study drugs today. They aren't being used for recreational purposes; they aren't being used by those on society's fringes; and they aren't producing any of the measurable effects associated with drug epidemics (overdoses, crime, etc.). Rather, these supposedly performance-enhancing drugs are being taken by those we consider to be amongst the most successful young people in our culture.

There are countless factors fueling the trend. A dramatic rise in ADHD prescriptions and unregulated online pharmaceutical wholesalers have made smart drugs easy to obtain. Tuitions have continued to rise unchecked--despite promises to the contrary by the Liberal Democrats--and are putting more pressure on students every year. The 19.9% unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds has made job scarcity a serious concern for UK's youth. And Modafinil is currently legal to import for personal use and possess in small amounts. So it seems there are many economic factors influencing the preponderance of students abusing these drugs today.

But recession or not, when a system that ought to be designed to improve young people encourages the abuse of prescription drugs (for ADHD and narcolepsy)--whose long-term effects on healthy people are unknown--isn't that system broken? Isn't there something wrong with a culture that celebrates so-called 'Life Hacking,' and encourages us to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of our bodies, even at the expense of our health? Aren't you alarmed that prescriptions for ADHD medicine for children have spiked 50% in six years?

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While we can certainly point to economics as a motivation for smart drug use, the true problem lies in the values our society instills in young people today. We now have a pill that can modify our brain chemistry to make us work harder and longer. Researchers believe it stifles creativity and may have adverse long-term impacts on our health*. Yet according to many of the brightest and most motivated young people in our culture today, the benefits of enhanced productivity outweigh the bodily costs. For better or worse, ours today is a culture that quantifies almost everything. Add up the realities of the smart drug revolution, however, and you may begin to wonder if perhaps we've all gone bankrupt.

*Firth .A (2013) in Western Eye "Should Students Take Smart Drugs?". 11/02/2013 based on a debate with a 'panel of experts'