The real drug pushers

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.

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7 thoughts on “The real drug pushers

  1. When I worked as a substance abuse counselor, I quickly learned there was plenty of Ritalin making the rounds. Kids were buying it (from a student with a prescription, maybe) and using it as an “upper.” I’d thought it was common knowledge that it was a stimulant, but I found many parents DIDN’T know and were surprised to learn it had potential for abuse.

    I have mixed feelings about this use of amphetamines. On one hand, I believe that these medications do help many kids and adults with severe ADHD. On the other hand … I’ve seen them prescribed casually and sometimes under great pressures from teachers and school administrators.

    Your post suggests another angle. Sometimes when you have a product you need to sell, your first goal is to find a new market if an old one dries up. Hmmm.

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  2. Funny you should bring this up, but on the weekend two friends told me that they’d just started taking prescription medication for depression and anxiety. These women aren’t that old, and never seemed all that depressed or anxious, so when they told me this news I felt so deeply disturbed that they’d started down that road without trying anything else first (diet, exercise, acupuncture, etc). The need for speed might be obnoxiously prevalent as a cultural mantra these days, but we also seem to have developed a severely dislocated understanding of our bodies and how they work. I find it very disquieting to see my women friends giving over their physical health like this.

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  3. I have worried these same fears for years. Actually, this forceable drug use was one of the biggest reasons we began homeschooling, as any child who is less than docile in over-crowded classrooms is automatically pushed toward this road. We brought T home to work on behavior mods, oft-scheduled physical activity,study skills, etc because I wanted to exhaust everything else BEFORE considering meds, which we finally began JUST last year! Even still, he takes an extremely low dose for his age/weight, and the DR. are always pushing to triple it, and do not understand our resistance They seem to feel that if a little works, more must be even better! Gag!
    Have you ever read “In Praise of Slowness?” Great book, about these very ideas. I too, realize that I could never work in a traditional fashion again, as I cannot return to being a hamster on a wheel. I hate that my DH is stuck in that ratrace for another few years, but we are planning for a future beyond that.

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  4. Great post! All of my cousins have been prescribed ritalin over the years and my aunts sometimes hint that we should be using it in our household. My mom told me this freaky story the other day about how 20 years ago when a kid got hyper in the classroom in my aunt’s school, they’d send him/her to the nurse and the nurse would give them a coke and they’d calm down. It is outrageous on one level, but the weird thing is that my kids had recently had their first coke for lunch while out one day and my visiting friend kept remarking how uncharacteristically mellow the day was turning out to be.

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  5. I, too, believe our culture is not in a sustainable mode. We are trying to slow the pace of our life, but getting off the merry-go-round is tough.

    My college age niece says many girls use the ritilan to keep slim. Also having the LD diagnosis enables them to have as much time as they want for tests.

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  6. Coincidentally, I just heard a great podcast on this subject – but talking about how many in academe are using ritalin et al. Here’s the link: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2008/2269902.htm
    I think it’ll be up for a few more days only, I do encourage you to have a listen.

    My feeling is that there are surprisingly few kids who really do better on ritalin ALONG WITH behavioural stuff, and aiming their education at them and their needs. For many others, it is the recourse when resources are terribly few (both personal and financial) – similar to anti-depressants in mildish depression, to my way of thinking.

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  7. We are always watching this here, as I am a great one for speeding things up. It runs in my family, so cultural pressure plus natural tendencies adds up to a dangerous drive to go way too fast.

    One thing that helps is that both my husband and I have committed to career paths that support being with our families rather than subtract from that. DH could have gone a very different route as a programmer — and so could I, as an academic — but that was one choice we made that had a big impact.

    I am a regular drug user — as one who suffers from *severe* depression at times, I regularly take antidepressants (in conjunction with periods of therapy and education in other stress management strategies). I don’t like taking them, but I can’t deny that they’ve saved my life — and even studies questioning the use of ADs for mild depression show a benefit for my kind of depression.

    I also have become a more aware user of caffeine. I haven’t stopped drinking tea or coffee, but I have a better sense of how it affects my body, including the beneficial effects. But I do try *not* to use it to push myself when my body is telling me to Stop.

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