Study drugs – love em or leave em?

In the beginning of this year the documentary “Take your pills” was released on Netflix which provides an insight into the increasing use of “smart drugs” or “study drugs” among workers and especially among students.

The frontrunners of this Netflix production are Ritalin, Adderall and Dexedrin (medication for ADHD), modafinil (medication for narcolepsy) and microdosages of Lysergic acid diethylamide (commonly referred to as LSD or acid). The documentary makes the point that drug reliance isn’t a new phenomenon. Interestingly, the first article about college students using amphetamines on campus was published years ago in 1937, but the issue did not receive the attention it does today. Today, the attention to drug reliance and abuse came about because the culture around it has changed and amplified the problem: the intense pressure of constant self-optimization, the fear of dismal employment options, the must to live a complete life with high academic performance, extra-curricular activities, vacation schemes and a fulfilling social life as well as the conversion of students from people to human capital is creating a world in which many people turn to drugs.

Professor Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that people used to use drugs to check out, now they use them to check in. Check into the pressure to perform perfectly in every aspect of your life. Check into the extreme competitivity birthed by late capitalism.

However, the documentary “Take your pills” should be watched with caution. It offers a very US-centric perspective, which cannot mindlessly be transferred to other countries. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that the drugs featured are vital medication for people suffering from ADHD and narcolepsy, and as such cannot be carelessly vilified. When behavioural therapy does not work or is not affordable, such medication can offer the necessary relief that has nothing to do with enhancing performance or drug abuse or the idea of getting ahead.

The issue only comes in when somebody uses the drugs without actually having the disorder and without the advice of a doctor. The drugs (each of course slightly different in their effect) increase your focus and your motivation, they blend out distractions and they can keep you awake. So in a way they can be seen as a high dosage of coffee in the form of a pill. However, coffee will not give you anxiety or panic attacks. In comparing volume, one can only drink so many cups of coffee, but it is easier to take a large amount of pills. For drugs, the risk of taking too much is higher, the risk of addiction is more acute, drug-to-drug interactions pose a greater danger and the quality of such drugs when bought through unregulated mediums such as the internet cannot be determined. On the other hand, coffee doesn’t take away your appetite and it doesn’t take away your need for human contact, it doesn’t suppress your affects and it doesn’t decrease your creativity.

Yet, “Take your pills” does offer an interesting perspective. Does its hypothesis hold up? Are “smart drugs” a product and at the same time an enhancement of our society building on extreme pressure?

Personal accounts of students certainly show a link to stress and pressure on and off campus. A comparison between the UK and Germany might give a further insight. In the UK, it is estimated that about 10% to 15% of students have tried drugs or alcohol to enhance their performance at least once. The Oxford Student, a newspaper by the University of Oxford found in 2016 that 15.6% of students were using smart drugs without prescription. In Germany, the numbers may be lower. A study by the federal ministry of health in 2014 found a number of 6% of students using illegal enhancement drugs. There could be many reasons for this rather significant difference. However, the differences between the two countries provide a glimpse of an answer. For one, the cost of university could be huge factor. In the UK a bachelor’s degree costs GBP27,000 (if you finish in regular time) and most students have to pay a high interest rate on their student loan. In Germany, on the other hand, a degree costs nothing but a small fee (money for which you get things in return, such as a public transport ticket). Thus, students are not under as much pressure to finish their studies quickly and perform highly in order to get a viable job that can then pay off their student loan which interest is mounting. Furthermore, having studied in both countries, I can say that from a personal perspective the pressure was much more intense in the UK. Studying in London at a high-profile university was possible with hard work and efficient time planning but I empathise for those who looked to ‘study drugs’ for help. In the welcome lecture of my first year in university, the lecturer said that if we didn’t have a breakdown at some point during our degree, we were probably not working hard enough. Looking desperately for performance enhancements was more normal, and more needed, than in Germany.

Ultimately, we should ask ourselves whether we want enhancing drugs to form part of our society and whether we agree with the version of society they represent.

From a utilitarian point of view, one could certainly justify using them since they produce a net benefit for society. After all, they help us to be more efficient and productive. However, looking at a social context, a culture of enhancing drugs may extend existing inequalities because it favours those who have access and can afford prescription medicine on a regular basis. This in turn depends on the social context of the respective user such as his or her gender, economic status and race.

Should we not instead consider whether enhancing drugs are the way to strengthen our performance? The Autonomy Institute, an independent think tank focusing on work, advocates that a four-day week of work can be more productive than a five day week for society: it forces a redistribution of work that currently finds those in full-time employment overworked and those in part-time employment wanting for more hours but unable to get itPossibly we are to quick to look to drugs to fuel our current system of society when making small changes to the system itself might serve us equally without posing health risks. Which brings us to the next point: health. We have to consider that achieving better performance by these means can sometimes affect our health in extreme ways and this might not be a price we’re willing to pay. Yes, one could argue that enhancing drugs aren’t dangerous if the user doesn’t take it too far. But do we trust ourselves in using responsibly? Isn’t the mentality that drives people into using enhancing drugs the exact opposite of the mentality that would allow oneself to be satisfied with a small enhancement? There’s always going to be another exam, another paper to write, another all-nighter to pull off. When is the moment to stop? And will we recognize that moment when it comes?

The answer to the question of whether we want these drugs to form part of our society depends heavily upon your worldview. If you believe that the bigger, better, faster ideology at the root of our society should be challenged but not fuelled then you will be better off questioning the issues within our society rather than agreeing with the use of “smart drugs”. Then you might agree with the idea that if we need drugs to live up to the expectations of our time, if we immediately look to drugs to help us with procrastination, stress, time management and work, then something is going wrong. But if you believe that the society that we live in and the pressure that we are exposed to is fine as it is and that drugs will only help us thrive, then go ahead: take your pills.

Written by Anna Wilken

Anna finished school in Germany in 2014, spent a gap year doing a voluntary service in Nicaragua and is now a first year law student at UCL. Other than being quite athletic because of excessive finger-muscle-training through typing stories and essays on her computer, she likes to experiment what her creativity can do with writing, painting and music