I was at a party a few nights ago. Well, sort of. I was working in a side room while a party was happening in the main room with 100 people there.
It wasn't really my scene, though the people were all really cool and nice. But they were getting absolutely hammered on vodka shots, cocktails, beer, and so on.
It's a few days later, and a thought occurs --
Isn't it funny that we spend so much money, energy, and attention to perfecting the craft of making drug-infused beverages that destroy our cognition? And that this is the drug of choice of the Western world, the one with the least short-term benefits and all kinds of destructive potential?
In 2006, I quit using all recreational drugs -- no alcohol, no tobacco, no THC (marijuana and hashish), and so on. I also quit all sugared sodas, and stayed off them, and caffeine, which I've gone back and forth on at various times.
I intentionally left a caveat for performance-oriented drugs. After almost getting killed in Cambodia, the doctor gave me both painkillers and steroids to heal from the crash.
This seems to be generally accepted. When something "breaks," everyone understands getting patched up. With damage in my calf, thigh, hip, back, elbow, and forearm, taking painkillers to be able to think clearly and steroids to heal is normal and appropriate.
But beyond that, it always seemed to me to be vanishingly unlikely that our neurochemistry and biochemistry are properly optimized. Diet, sleep, exercise, a decent environment, getting outside, and having good people around come first and foremost. What do you do after that if, say, you're much lower on growth hormone that optimal, or your body is doing a poor job of producing serotonin?
Well, again, this is a generally accepted usage of pharmacology.
A step further -- how about when you simply want to perform better?
This is where it gets dicey. There's debates about fairness, because the assumption is that if one athlete is taking anabolic steroids and drugs to greatly improve reaction times, other athletes will be almost forced into taking them to compete.
The standard isn't really universally applied. Many professions consume large amounts of caffeine to do their work, and that seems acceptable. Certainly, people who hit coffee and energy drinks hard to keep crunching numbers on spreadsheets feel pressure to do so. The percentage of junior investment bankers taking large quantities of caffeine must be very high, perhaps near 100%.
But again, it's acceptable due to the longstanding tradition of coffee and tobacco usage.
When you start discussing modern performance enhancing drugs, though, the line blurs; the topic becomes taboo.
Thus you have...
Self-destruction for pleasure and relaxation: Acceptable
Healing from serious injuries: Acceptable
Fixing chemical imbalances that take you below average: Acceptable
Taking culturally accepted stimulants (caffeine, nicotine): Acceptable
Intelligently researching and carefully choosing performance enhancers: Questionable to unacceptable
It's understandable from the culture we emerged. In the post-WWII era, American and Soviet scientists invented and deployed a wide array of "miracle drugs" -- that often had long-term harmful side effects that went unnoticed in the first moments. And once someone in a competitive field began taking them, other competitors were almost forced to or they'd fall behind.
But how much is this conservatism a cultural factor that will change with time? I think, almost entirely so. The work that's being done now on personalized medicine, how your genetics interact with pharmacology, intelligent moderation and monitoring of substance usage and bio-indicators of what's happening -- amazing strides are being made in this.
The breakthrough won't happen overnight. The first kinds of genetically suitable, carefully implemented, "designer drugs" will be expensive, and there will be great concerns about furthering inequality and lack of access to these new boosts that some people can afford.
Meanwhile, a lot of the behavior will be driven underground, which is unfortunate. Reputable licensed physicians in countries where performance enhancement usage of pharmacology is illegal will not be able to diagnose, assess, test, and iterate with people who could use medical attention, and there will be an unfortunate "Do It Yourself" ethos to it, similar to how many bodybuilders order steroids from shady suppliers, then mix and inject the substances on their own, and don't get appropriate medical oversight -- because of the illegality of what they're doing (yet they've highly committed to do so, anyways).
It will change. Pharmacology is both amazing powerful, and also surprisingly shockingly cheap to produce and distribute. Caffeine pills cost mere pennies for a significant dosage, and after the R&D, testing, and licensing of drugs are complete, the costs of actual production fall to near zero quickly.
It'll be a boon for society. Intelligence augmentation is likely what's going to save us from the "zero marginal productivity" phenomenon that economist Tyler Cowen rightly points to as a potential problem on the horizon.
Meanwhile, intelligently and carefully-chosen, patient-driven mood stabilizers can help mitigate impulsiveness, violence, and the crime that comes with it. And all other manner of having a more flourishing human experience can be had by having better biochemistry and neurochemistry.
The rules are there for a reason; they serve a valid purpose. But over time, the technologies will evolve, our knowledge will evolve, our culture will evolve, and the law will evolve around it. The future is bright indeed -- I, for one, think it can't come soon enough.