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“Smart Drugs:” Should they be Banned?

The surge of vitality a cup of coffee or an energy drink provides is a familiar experience for many high school and college-aged students. Now, however, a new stimulant is entering the conversation: “smart drugs.”

So-called “smart drugs” include Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil and are typically prescribed to treat disorders such as ADHD. Students who do not have prescriptions for these drugs sometimes take them, however, in the hopes that they will be able to focus better and gain a competitive edge in the classroom. According to a 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11% of 12- to 25-year-olds use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.

And recent dialogue suggests that this percentage has only gone up.

At Haverford, however, the attitude towards “smart drugs” seems to be an exception to the national trend. In an anonymous online survey of 230 self-selected Haverford students, over half of respondents stated that taking “smart drugs” to boost academic performance is “cheating.” 22% said that they were “not sure” if this constitutes cheating.

“I don’t know on moral grounds if using ‘smart drugs’ is cheating, but I am against allowing them,” said Nora Weathers ’16. “I am against any statement of tolerance (by the school or otherwise) because I worry about an implicit pressure to take them.”

Many respondents also noted that the use of these drugs in individuals without prescriptions for them is unfair for students who have a medical need for them.

“In order to get closer to the level of attention and focus the typical student has, someone with ADHD needs to take a medication for it,” said Haverford sophomore Chelsea Richardson. “If the use of that medication becomes normalized, then the level of attention and focus of the typical student is raised above what a student with ADHD can possibly reach.”

Some respondents stated that the improper use of prescription drugs was a violation of the College’s Honor Code. 45% of respondents also noted that Haverford should have a specific policy regarding the use of “smart drugs.”

However, very few college campuses have specific regulations regarding the use of “smart drugs.” Earlier this month, Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, hosted a debate that addressed this topic. The debate, which was held at George Washington University, featured Haverford alumnus and current Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital Dr. Anjan Chatterjee.

According to Chatterjee, who graduated in 1980 with a B.A. in philosophy, students should be allowed to take “smart drugs” to enhance their academic performance.

“When people come to see me in [my] clinic, they have choices,” noted Chatterjee, who is also a member of Haverford’s Board of Managers. “College students have the right to choose what is done to their bodies.”

Though Haverford’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) has a policy regarding the prescription of ADD/ADHD stimulant medications, there is no section about the use of stimulants in students who have no medical need for them. Bryn Mawr’s protocol on the use of these drugs is also unspecified: while its counseling services webpage notes that it “provides assessment, treatment, education, consultation, and referral services to support the well being and functioning of BMC students,” no mention is made of “smart drugs.”

Some colleges, such as Swarthmore, do have medication policies that address this subject. In Swarthmore’s Alcohol and Drug Policies, it is stated that “the misuse of prescription drugs, including sharing, procuring, buying, or using in a manner different from the prescribed use, or by someone other than the person for whom it was prescribed” is prohibited.

Opinions among faculty are mixed as well. When asked about his personal stance on “smart drugs,” Haverford President Kim Benston responded that the subject was “very interesting” and “very complex.” Declining to state whether or not Haverford should have a specific policy on the use of “smart drugs,” Benston furthered that he would “try to find time to learn more about and reflect on [the] issue.”

“As for the off-label use of smart drugs…[it] is a complicated issue with a lot to consider,” added CAPS Director Philip Rosenbaum.

Both Swarthmore President Valerie Smith and Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy declined to comment.

It is worth noting that Adderall and Ritalin are both schedule II drugs according to the U.S. Controlled Substance Act (other schedule II drugs include morphine and cocaine). In other words, if an individual were caught in possession of a “smart drug” without a prescription for it, he or she could face legal consequences.

Legality aside, some who remain undecided on this issue claim there is not enough research on this class of drugs to determine whether their benefits outweigh their risks for individuals who do not have medical prescriptions for them. However, a few survey respondents said that taking these drugs on special occasions—such as midterms or finals week—is an unharmful as well as acceptable practice.

“Caffeine is a stimulant people use to focus. Adderall is a stimulant people use to focus,” said an anonymous Haverford junior. “Are we going to ban caffeine?”

One Comment

  1. gregsmalley November 16, 2015

    Here is a link to a 2012 abc News report (text & video) on Modafinil (Provigil) that provides additional context for individuals interested in this issue:
    As someone who had obstructive sleep apnea and was prescribed this drug for a period of time, I can attest to its stimulant properties, but not the “cognitive enhancement” part. The lure of a “smart pill” is intriguing, and one only has to view the movies “Limitless” and “Lucy” to see the ongoing appeal of this concept. For those willing to view a much older movie classic, where a device rather than a pill is used, find a copy of “Forbidden Planet” and check out the intelligence-boosting machine of the native Krell. Say hello to Morbius while you’re there.
    Greg Smalley ’71

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