Dope society

Dope society

Good op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today by John Hoberman: The doping of everyday life. His point: that we’ve unfairly focused our ire on elite athletes for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Floyd Landis and Barry Bonds are looked down on for using drugs to do better in their jobs, but everyday Joe’s go on using performance enhancers without a second thought:

[A]mphetamines for long-distance drivers; mine workers chewing coca leaves high in the Andes; classical musicians on beta-blockers; steroids for police officers, prison guards, and bouncers; Prozac, Ritalin, cocaine, or methamphetamine for energy and self-confidence on the job; the new anti-narcoleptic modafinil (Provigil) for students and truckers; Red Bull and other caffeine-delivery vehicles as an omnipresent workplace “tonic.”

I’d add the old standbys coffee, cigarettes and Diet Coke to the list, too.

Hoberman gives particular attention to the use of drugs for academic performance enhancement.

Today the illogical distinction between athletic and academic doping is more important than ever. While drug testing of athletes has increased, surveillance of intellectual doping on campus has scarcely begun. The performance-enhancing effects of ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall exceed those of the classic amphetamines by promoting a supernormal capacity for mental focus. “It’s like tunnel vision,” says one high school student. “You’re able to think really deeply about the subject.”

I’m somewhat torn on this topic. I do think it’s fair to condemn athletes for drug use when such use is against the rules. It’s cheating, just like throwing a spitball or using a corked bat. The question is whether the rules should be relaxed or repealed in sports, and whether rules should be created in other disciplines, like school.

In my view, rules against drug use are reasonable in order to protect competitors from harming themselves. Drugs generally help in the short term but cause problems later on, through side effects or addiction, for example. Some of these drugs may cut short an athletic career and end up being counterproductive even in that narrow time frame. Others may cause problems down the road, like cancer or arthritis. The same is true of drugs to boost academic performance — there’s no use getting into Yale if the drugs that got you in end up making you psychotic.

But what about drugs that boost performance with only mild (or even no) side effects? Assuming such drugs exist, it becomes a harder question to answer. It would seem to put drugs in the same category as other tools, such as tutoring, study groups, and Cliffs Notes. On balance, I think such drugs should be allowed, but I don’t think we can say with certainty that many of the drugs available today are safe enough to use. It’s a slippery argument though. How can we measure the performance boost against the severity of the side effects? How do we compare the acceptability of a drug with rare but severe side effects with one that offers frequent, but mild side effects? How do we compare side effects that occur in the near term with those that may not hit until middle age or later? Do we excuse the use of drugs if they are prescribed for an medical indication like ADHD or panic disorder or high blood pressure?

Unless we are willing to ban caffeine, it’s hard to say performance drugs in general should be banned from work and school.

One possibility would be to allow students to take whatever drugs they want but to require disclosure; e.g., SAT Verbal 800 while on Adderall, caffeine, psilocybin, alcohol, model glue. It would make for interesting resume reading and boost the drug testing business if random testing were put in place.

August 21, 2006

4 thoughts on “Dope society”

  1. Two observations here: I thought caffeine was safe in moderate amounts — say, the equivalent of 2-3 cups a day — for nearly everyone. I know there are plenty of people going beyond that, and there are many hidden sources of it in our diets, but I guess I’m just wondering what the peer-reviewed science says about caffeine (if you can find a study that wasn’t paid for by the coffee or soft drink industries).

    Second, shouldn’t our tendency be toward individual liberty as regards work and school? Professional sports, and to an extent, amateur sports, are products with certain contractual arrangements and expectations of a certain integrity. So bans and testing for performance-enhancers are appropriate in those places. Also, there’s the potential for danger to others (e.g. injuring another competitor, or, say, launching a race car into the grandstand at 180 mph).

    But as regards work and school, if your short-term performance is enhanced, and some negative long-term consequences (e.g. chronic health condition, loss of job performance) follow later, who cares as long as the harm (loss of mobility, loss of job) is only to yourself? I suggest we should become concerned only if others are being harmed. I’m not dismissing Hoberman’s thesis. Just saying that if we’re talking about banning and testing, I’d like to see what science has to say about the existance of harm to others. Failing such, I’d say privacy reigns here, and it’s nobody else’s business what you do.

  2. I always feel that if you are given the appropriate information and you make an informed choice to engage in behaviors or take risks that could bring harm to yourself either in the short or long run, then you take responsibility for your actions and accept the results.

    Again, Mr. Williams makes a good point about the effects of same on society as a whole.

    Then again, my drug of choice is Diet Pepsi. It doesn’t enhance any performance, but it sure does taste good! : )

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