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Why the College Shouldn’t Take a Stance Against “Smart Drugs”

Last semester, The Clerk published an article detailing the use of “smart drugs” when they are not prescribed. As a participant in the survey that formed the base of this article, I want to address some of the complaints cited by opponents of non-prescribed “smart drug” usage on Haverford’s campus, as well as outline my own argument as to why the college should not take a stance against students who take the drugs without a prescription.

The consumption of non-prescribed “smart drugs” by Haverford students is not an ethical problem.

The main critique raised by some of my classmates in last semester’s survey is the inherent “unfairness” of “smart drug” consumption. The claim, based on my understanding, is that students who are prescribed a drug need it to reach the level of attentiveness that a “typical” student always has. Thus, those who choose to purchase the drug through less legal means are reaching a level of focus that those who are prescribed the drug for medical reasons would never be able to achieve.

The first problem I see with using the above as a litmus test for ethicality is considering attention span—or perhaps the more general ability to focus— as a “have” or “have not” trait. Much like every learning impediment, attention span exists on a spectrum. Yet the argument that taking these drugs is unethical demands that students view the ability to focus as dichotomous.

However, this is not exclusively a problem with how Haverford students understand attention deficit, but a product of how the educational system treats learning disabilities on a general level.

The emergence of “extended time” for standardized testing essentially demands that we perceive attention disorders in a binary way. If a student is granted accommodations on the ACT, he or she is automatically granted 1.5x more time on each portion of the exam regardless of the severity of the learning impediment. This standard doesn’t acknowledge the difference between students who have crippling attention/learning disorders and those who are barely on the spectrum. This becomes even more problematic as one of the most common cognitive disorders ADD/ADHD, is not diagnosed through an examination devoid of human error, but based on the subjective assessments of family practitioners or psychiatrists. Thus the standard for what qualifies as attention deficit may be standardized for a specific office or group of practitioners, but not necessarily across county, much less state lines. Fairness has never been an element in our consideration of extended time at the administrative level, however, critics of those who take “smart drugs” without a prescription demand that these students should be more cognizant of the inherent unfairness of their decisions.

The obsession with fairness as an argument against smart-drug consumption becomes even more difficult to justify when recognizing how much inequality influences our time at Haverford. Before coming to campus, many students receive long-standing privileges which give them an unfair advantage during their time here. These benefits are not necessarily the development of writing skills, or the previous exposure to a more stimulating academic environment, (not to say that they do not matter, but potentially can be overcome) but rather the possession of specific perks that cannot be changed based on work ethic. Some of us have parents that can and do edit our essays, while some of us have parents that did not receive their high school diplomas. Because a student may never have the luxury of sending a last-minute email to his or her parents for edits, is the proper reaction to consider those who do reach out to their parents with degrees as unethically improving their chances?

Another reason that unfairness is not a compelling argument, is that while these drugs may improve focus, they do not improve the quality of work. The consumption of smart drugs improves efficiency and enables productivity–it is not a miracle substance that creates intellect or produces better, more refined ideas. The drug will not improve the quality of anybody’s work, but rather may expedite the essay writing process. The student who has no prescribed need may reach a “focus” threshold that cannot be attained by a peer, but he or she is not unlocking another processor core in the brain. A comment by an alum on the previous article alluded to this distinction, writing that he can attest to its, “stimulant properties, but not the ‘cognitive enhancement’ element,” (Greg Smalley, ’71). It appears that the umbrella term of “smart drug” leads to a false understanding of exactly how the prescription ‘improves’ academic performance. The drug is not responsible for the analysis on the page, but just a way of facilitating the writing process.

Another concern raised in the previous article was that Haverford’s consent to the drug’s consumption would implicitly pressure students to take it. Haverford makes thousands of micro and macro decisions regarding everything, from its administrative policies, to the hours of its libraries. Just because the College chooses to keep the library open until 2 a.m. does not mean that it expects students to stay there every night until closing. Haverford students are capable of free will and, much like we can choose to exclusively eat the cookies at the Dining Center when healthier options are provided, we can choose to ignore the implicit pressures of consuming “smart drugs” if the College remains neutral on their consumption.

If you would like to write a response to this article or have questions or concerns, please contact the author Gabriel Delabra at or the Editor-in-Chief Hannah Cregan Zigler at

One Comment

  1. kaia2 March 29, 2016

    You’re neglecting a major component of the discussion: the fact that taking drugs that are not prescribed to you (especially amphetamines) is inherently unsafe. When a person is prescribed a drug for attention deficit, they are asked a long series of health related questions, undergo medical tests etc. to make sure a particular drug will be safe for them. Additionally, they are prescribed a correct and safe dosage, which can vary widely from about 5 mg to 40+ mg, based on sex, health, and weight. Amphetamines are dangerous and do in fact cause deaths- both for people with legal prescriptions and those who take them illegally. But by taking a drug that is not prescribed specifically for you by a medical professional, you are really putting yourself at risk.

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