A Ban on Brain-Boosting Drugs Is Not the Answer

Jordin Isip for The Chronicle

February 27, 2011

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently described an experiment in which two student journalists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison tested how quickly they could "score" Adderall—a prescription stimulant designed to treat attention-deficit disorders, but often used by healthy students as a study aid. The reporters walked into a campus library, tapped a studying stranger on the shoulder, and were connected to an Adderall supply in less than one minute.

While rates of drinking among college students have been relatively steady in recent years, nontherapeutic use of prescription drugs has soared—now second only to marijuana as a form of illicit drug use. Research by Alan D. DeSantis, a professor of communication at the University of Kentucky who has studied ADHD-stimulant use in fraternities, suggests that 34 percent of the university's undergraduates have used stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall as study aids. According to DeSantis, that number rises the longer students are in college, and nearly 60 percent of Kentucky's juniors and seniors have used "neuroenhancers."

Concerned observers of this trend, most notably at Britain's Academy of Medical Sciences, have characterized the use of "study drugs" as a form of cheating, akin to the use of steroids in sports. Having diagnosed the problem as an issue of unfair competition, the academy has called on universities to consider banning the use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy students. This past October, Wesleyan University did just that, amending its student code of conduct to recognize "misuse" of prescription drugs as a violation of the college's prohibition against receiving "improper assistance" in completing academic work.

The sense that this practice qualifies as "cheating" reflects an intuitive discomfort with healthy students' using drugs to improve their academic performance. But the instinct to view the problem as a form of unfair competition is itself a manifestation of the debased educational culture that has rendered these drugs so attractive to students. Simply calling the use of study drugs "unfair" tells us nothing about why colleges should ban them. If such drugs really do improve academic performance among healthy students (and the evidence is scant), shouldn't colleges put them in the drinking water instead? After all, it would be unfair to permit wealthy students to use them if less privileged students can't afford them.

If our key concern is fairness, making study drugs available to all students could actually do more to promote that goal than banning them. Of course, to the extent that such drugs pose health risks, it's prudent to restrict their use. But that seems like an argument about safety, not fairness. While safety is a valid concern, it is one that might be overcome by better drug design. If we are still troubled by the idea of a study drug that is safe and universally available, we have to look for other sources of our discomfort.

The word "cheating" has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has "cheated herself" out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.

On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.

Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.

Students take cues about what to value—what types of achievements and undertakings are worthwhile, which elements of character are important, which modes of behavior are honorable—from the cultures of their colleges and in the wider society. We live in a society that exalts competition and its monetary rewards. High-school students compete for college admissions. College students compete for grades, then for jobs. Employees compete for promotions, and their employers compete for market share. Within that context, "just saying no" to drugs that might confer a competitive edge can start to look crazy—or at best apathetic.

If our goal is to promote students' engagement in education, we should realign student incentives with the appreciation of education's internal benefits, so that students are not rewarded for taking shortcuts. In drug-policy terms, this is a "demand reduction" strategy that works by draining study drugs of their value.

It is not an undertaking that can be accomplished in one fell swoop. Rather, it requires a series of smaller steps that gradually reshape the character of higher education over time—by, for example, de-emphasizing standardized-test scores in admissions decisions in favor of criteria that reflect deeper forms of student engagement, like essay writing and participation in internships, clinics, practicum courses, and extracurriculars. Adderall may raise test scores, but it is unlikely to help students develop interesting résumés.

If universities instead choose to enact blanket prohibitions on the use of study drugs by healthy students, it would be more sensible to enforce such a policy through honor codes than through measures such as urine testing, as the Academy of Medical Sciences has proposed. Unlike a policing approach, honor codes ask students to internalize values that are important to education and to character in general. Although students who violate honor codes face sanctions, the primary aim is not to deter improper conduct with threats, but to persuade students that to breach the code is to betray themselves. If colleges believe that enhancing cognition with drugs deprives students of the true value of education, they must encourage students to adopt that value as their own.

Matt Lamkin is a lawyer and a master's candidate in bioethics at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics.