THE BLOG
01/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Scientists Endorse "Brain Boost" Drugs: Beginning of End of Drug War?

I have long argued, sometimes jokingly, that the solution to many drug policy problems is better drugs. If a drug was developed that did not produce physical dependence, did not create an escalating desire for more that interfered with work or love, reliably produced a high and was not physically harmful to the brain or other organs, it would be difficult to make a case that its use should be criminalized.

Today in the leading scientific journal Nature, researchers argue that drugs that "boost the brain" should similarly be permitted if they are safe and effective. Here's where it gets interesting: many drugs that boost the brain also produce a high.

Amphetamine is a classic example: it can improve performance on certain tests and can certainly allow performance to continue under circumstances where exhaustion would otherwise curtail it. Amphetamine, of course, is still a problematic drug that can be addictive and is toxic to the brain in high doses. [Note: it could also be useful in addiction treatment, however: see my article on this for Time Magazine online here].

Today's Nature editorial, however, also argues against criminalizing youth who are already, in fact, using stimulants like amphetamine and the similar ADHD drug Ritalin for enhancement.

But what if there were a safe drug that could make you both smarter and happier? Some would argue that it would be wrong to allow use of this drug in academia, because it would give its users an unfair advantage.

However, some people are already genetically and environmentally blessed with brains that work more effectively than others. Why is using this drug any different than have those advantages? One doesn't choose one's parents, after all.

If the activity being "enhanced," is say, finding a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's, if a safe drug can allow researchers to get there faster, who is hurt? We all benefit if doctors find cures more quickly, if scientists find green energy solutions faster and teachers become more effective at helping kids learn. It's not like a race in which there are only winners and losers--if we improve human cognition overall, we can enrich everyone.

There are arguments to be made against such drugs. One is that they will enhance inequality, because those who can afford them will now have even greater advantages than those who cannot. But this is true for being able to afford other types of enhancement like tutors and computers--and we don't ban those.

A second possible downside is that permitting use of such medications will put intolerable pressure on those who don't wish to take them to do so, just to keep up with everyone else. Again, the same is true for computers and tutors--and again, we permit those.

Of course, real drugs as opposed to hypothetical ones do carry risks, some of which will be unknown when they are introduced. For example, one might imagine a drug that increases certain cognitive skills--but with a simultaneous trade-off in reduced emotional intelligence. Or vice versa. Where the rubber hits the road with cognitive enhancement will be in which types of intelligence we are able to enhance and at what cost. "Safe" after all, is relative--nothing is completely safe.

The debate over cognitive enhancement also sheds light on drug policy with regard to straightforward recreational drugs. If people are allowed to take drugs non-medically for one purpose--cognitive enhancement, which most scientists seem to agree should be permissible--why is non-medical use for pleasure wrong? After all, people have argued for years that recreational drugs like marijuana and psychedelics enhance creativity and can offer insight--aren't those forms of intelligence? Why can we enhance some types and not others?

I'll be quite curious to see the response to Nature's call for this debate. Perhaps we might finally bring some rationality to drug policy.