As Tigger approaches adolescence, I occasionally consider issues like drug education. Talking with a younger friend recently, I learned that the drug of choice for university aged kids these days seems to be Ritalin or similar, often obtained via friends with a prescription. I have all kinds of issues with the over-medication of our children, and this just seemed to add another good reason to be concerned.
And then yesterday I saw a really interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is one that is secured to subscribers but it is very interesting. The author, Nicolas Rasmussen, gives us a brief history of amphetamines. (I don’t think I had realized that Ritalin and other drugs prescribed for ADHD were actually speed, but it makes a lot of sense.) The drug was invented in 1929 but didn’t come into widespread use until after WWII. The American military has been one of the main pushers of this type of drug, providing it for soldiers in combat and ignoring any addictive properties. In the 1950s and ’60s, amphetamine was prescribed for a whole range of ills from depression to obesity. And much of the non-prescribed abuse of amphetamine was acquired through prescription users. Controls on production and distribution were tightened in the early 1970s.
But now, apparently, it’s back. And in force. The main driver now is treatment of ADHD and related issues. As Rasmussen points out, proportionately amphetamine use is not as high as it was in 1969 but that is because we now have a much broader range of drugs to treat what amphetamines were prescribed for 40 years ago.
So the amphetamine-assisted, physician-abetted social adjustment of yore is back as a mass phenomenon. But it does not, at first glance, represent as severe a problem proportionally. There are fewer than 10 million medical and nonmedical amphetamine users today, whereas the population has increased from 200 million to 300 million since 1969. Amphetamine use is therefore less than two-thirds as prevalent as it was in 1969. But we might expand our purview beyond simple statistics to ask a broader sociological question: Has the medical demand that amphetamines once filled abated? Apparently not. Counting all the medicines used now for conditions that amphetamine once treated — depression, obesity, and “fatigue,” or inadequate working attention — we can estimate that, proportional to population, each year roughly twice as many Americans now take a drug that would, in 1969, have very likely been an amphetamine.
That calculus suggests that if the amphetamine epidemic of the 1960s was symptomatic of a deep-rooted social disease — drug use to meet unwholesome expectations of incessant cheeriness, unnatural productivity, and extreme slimness, and to boost the postwar consumerist ethos that the sociologist David Riesman once called the “fun morality” — then America is now twice as sick. When Allen Ginsberg helped open the counterculture’s own anti-amphetamine campaign in 1965 under the slogan “speed kills,” he wasn’t referring just to the drug that so many Americans relied on to keep up. He was also thinking of the demand that amphetamine satisfies. It might be time to think again about heeding his call.
Rasmussen has written a book, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine. I suspect it might be very interesting.
For me, homeschooling has been part of a larger lifestyle shift that has been driven by resistance to precisely this culture. Working for myself. Working less. Not rushing around trying to do everything possible. Growing and cooking my own food. Sleeping more. All of these things are part of resisting the culture of speed. And when I meet folks who are employed, I am continuously stunned by the extent to which they just accept the normality of working overtime for no extra pay; of feeling (and being) overloaded; of not having time for themselves. This can happen with homeschoolers and the self-employed, too, but I think we have more opportunities to consciously resist these demands. Or at least to recognize that we are putting them on ourselves.
Thinking about it, perhaps the beauty of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which I posted about almost exactly a year ago) is that it sets out a life lived to this different rhythm: seasonal, slow, human.
Maybe the real drug pushers, the ones we need to be worried about, are all those who normalize our culture of overwork including, but not limited to, those who would prescribe medication to enable individuals to keep up that pace.