Monday, April 26, 2010

The Ethics Of Adderall

Last night on 60 Minutes, they had a segment about the amphetamine Adderall. It's a drug that is typically prescribed for people with ADHD or other attention disorders but is commonly used by college students to study and do schoolwork along with other people looking to keep themselves focused on any number of tasks. The reason I mention it here is that the debate about it is incredibly similar to the one about performance enhancing drugs in sports.

One of the members of a panel of students from the University of Kentucky assembled by the show said:
Everybody's trying to get an edge. And I mean, and if you can take a pill that will help you study all night to get that grade you need, I mean, a lotta people don't see why they wouldn't do it.
As was the case when PEDs were first being used by athletes, there is some gray area in regards to their legality (it's much closer to black and white now). Adderall is a legal, but people often obtain the pills from others who have prescriptions, which is not. Alan DeSantis, a communications professor at UK explains:
About four percent of our college campus has, actually, legal prescriptions. But what we have found is that while they may get 30 doses, they very rarely would ever take a dose everyday. Which means, at the end of the month, there is always anywhere from 10 to 20 surplus pills left over. And these are the surplus pills that are doled out.

Baseball might have its own problem with drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. As a result of the Mitchell Report, we know that in 2008, there was a 7.6% increase in the number of players with prescriptions for attention-boosting drugs, which Newsweek attributed to baseball's ban on other amphetamines like greenies. Some of those are likely legitimate cases, but given the sharp increase, it's probable that a significant number of players are taking the drug who do not have diagnoses that would hold up under close scrutiny.

In addition to the possibility of addiction, Adderall carries health risks consistent with other amphetamines, especially when taken in large doses. Like steroids or HGH, those who are unwilling to take those gambles don't reap the benefits drug can provide.

Another one of the students on the panel offered an objection to the use of Adderall similar to what we've heard time and time again from opponents of PED usage in sports:
I feel that it is an unfair advantage. If the person next to me that has the exact same schedule takes an Adderall they can stay up the entire night knowing the material and come in and make a grade better than me.

I mean, it is somewhat tempting but at the same time I'm just so proud that I've come this far and I know when I look at my grades that it is purely by my own ability.
Students aren't in direct competition with each other to the extent that athletes are, but those breaking the law by taking other people's pills (or those bending them by faking symptoms to get their own prescriptions) are certainly gaining an unfair advantage.

As medical technology evolves, we are seeing more and more drugs that can make our minds function more efficiently and our bodies stronger. Like anything else, these carry their own risks and the people willing to mortgage their future health are going to be able to gain and edge and cut corners now. Is that inherently fair? Probably not, but there aren't immediate rewards for taking the high road and it's extremely difficult to prevent people from taking the easy way out.

Setting aside the legalities for a second, is there anything morally wrong with taking a drug that makes your brain more potent? Wouldn't you want the option of taking something that makes you ostensibly smarter? According the the show, Adderall is popular among truck drivers because it helps them stay more alert at the wheel, which could potentially save lives. If people can use it without forming an addiction or even a habit, what's the problem with it?

The ethics of this issue are awfully fuzzy, and they promise to become more complicated as drugs become more effective. I'm somewhat of a Libertarian when it comes to drugs, so I think people should be able to make their own choices in regards to the substances they choose to use. But I'm sure your mileage will vary.


  1. Students taking ADHD Drugs was mentioned in the documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger (available streaming on Netflix) along with musicians taking beta blockers to calm them before performances and porn actors taking Viagra.

    People are very willing to say that steroids are bad but have no concerns with performance enhancing drugs outside of sports. What about other drugs used in college? Are they less of a concern because they are not as effective? Is Adderall worse than caffeine?

    The idea of steroids still feels wrong to me but I don't have a good argument opposing them. I feel like the gray area is growing.

  2. I know this might be an over simplified answer to the question, but I could care less what people put in their body so long as the decision is standardized for everyone.

    In other words, if people want to use steroids or Adderall, that's absolutely no problem in my book. Just make sure it is legalized and openly offered to everyone. However, if we (society) are unwilling to legalize the substance (regardless of the reason), it should not be allowed, period.

    It seems to me that the controversy in debates such as this do not typically reside in objective concern for humanity's well being. Rather this is a philosophical decision designed to keep one's competition in check. Preventing someone else from achieving further advantages (stronger muscles, more focus, etc) allows someone with less ability to have a better shot. It's a completely different mindset that achieves the same goal. You're gaining an edge in that the competition is not.

    For example, the following two statements have very different meanings:

    "I have a problem with the inherent dangers of using substances that may effect one adversely down the road even though it provides benefit now."

    By this line of thinking, the concern is over the dangers of the drug. Theoretically, this would not be a concern if the drug was proven to be completely safe. The issue here is not the integrity of game, but rather the drug itself.

    "It's unfair that I have to compete with advantages someone else has that I don't necessarily agree with or am privy too - especially after I worked my whole life to achieve my ends without it."

    In other words, that line of thinking is inherently designed to protect one's self interest. There would not be half the complaint about an opposing player being a chain smoker or an alcoholic (so long as he didn't break the law - ie DUI). Sure, some individuals may be concerned over the player's well being, but no one is going feel threatened by another player's deteriorating performance after taking substances with purely negative repercussions.

    Just food for thought.

  3. I heart PEDs. I don't heart that they have been and still are distibuted unevenly to players/humans. This is about science. PEDs will only become better, safer, and more prevalent in everyday life. I am interested in seeing how it plays out over the next couple decades.

    Is it possible that spectators will be stronger and faster than olympic athletes because they can take advantage of scientific advances, while olympians will have to rely on their pathetic "normal" bodies. Probably not, but it's a funny far fetched possibility to think about.

    P.S. Meh, the problem with typing some, then going away, then coming back, then seeing what someone else posted makes the timing of my post odd. It is cool though, that my basic premise agrees with MoE.