Dan Parker

Legal Issues of the 21st Century

Mind Drugs – ADHD Drugs as Cognitive Enhancers


            Ritalin, Adderall, and other ADHD medicines are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States.  While a definite number is difficult to come up with, many millions of people take ADHD drugs every day in the United States alone.  Many of these are prescribed, and many are not.  Ritalin and Adderall are stimulants, similar in structure to cocaine or heroin, and derived from amphetamines.  Both are classified by the U.S. government as Schedule II drugs.  Schedule II drugs are defined as: i) The drug or substance has a high potential for abuse; ii) the drug or substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S. or currently accepted medical use with severe restriction; and iii) abuse of the drug or substance may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.  Currently, a single Ritalin pill can be bought for somewhere in the range of 25 cents to 75 cents with a prescription.  Out on the street, however, the price ranges from $3 to $15 per pill.  Because of this huge disparity, illegal diverting and selling of ADHD drugs will always be present.

            Countless articles have been written about how ADHD drugs have been overprescribed[1] and about their “abuse” by students[2].  In fact, Ritalin has captured the minds of parents and legislatures sufficiently that “Ritalin Bills” have been passed in some states[3].  These laws prohibit teachers from discussing with a child’s parents or guardian that the child may have a psychological disorder.  This stems from the notion that teachers would over diagnose unruly students because it is easier for them to drug an unruly student than to deal with them in the classroom.  This is not only true for teachers; many parents may over diagnose their children as ADD/ADHD simply because they themselves have done a poor job of raising the child.  And, rather than deal with the consequences of a “bad” child, they would rather drug the child into behaving.

            In doing this research I was able to find very little discussion by the legislatures (both state and federal) of using ADHD drugs as cognitive enhancers – mostly the discussion of their use as cognitive enhancers was limited to news organizations[4] and individuals[5].  Unsurprisingly, many schools are weighing in on the discussion, as they are one of the primary places and reasons that ADHD drugs are used for cognitive enhancement.  As the arguments for and against the use of ADHD drugs as cognitive enhancers have already been discussed in the class reading, there is no need to rehash them here.  Indeed, some people are already calling on universities to consider drug testing as a way to level the playing field for those who do not take cognitive enhancers[6].

            Similarly, the Courts have not weighed in on the discussion.  The majority of cases involving ADHD drugs fall into two categories: Doctors being busted for prescribing too much Ritalin, and people being busted for possession of Ritalin (usually with other drugs).  I imagine that most people who are caught with only a few pills of Ritalin (or other ADHD drug) get away with minor consequences, as these people are simply not seen as harmful enough to society to waste the police and Court’s time to put them away, nor are severe penalties available.  However, large scale distribution of the drugs is seen as an issue and is actively prosecuted by various District Attorneys, although any large scale distributor is also selling many other drugs, and I was unable to find any instances of someone be prosecuted only for possession/distribution of Ritalin, and not other drugs as well.

In the near future, the laws controlling the use of ADHD medications (as cognitive enhancers or to treat a disorder) are unlikely to change.  Currently, the laws see no difference between someone who takes 1 pill of Ritalin a day for cognitive enhancement without a prescription, and someone who crushes up 2-3 pills of Ritalin and sorts them to get high.  As with all of the U.S. drug policy laws, this “all or nothing” approach (in this author’s opinion) causes far more harm than good.  The use of ADHD drugs for cognitive enhancement is similar to that of marijuana.  Everyone knows that the use is widespread, yet the Government continues to bury its collective head in the sand.  If the government were to loosen the strict drug laws concerning ADHD medication, actual use of the drug would likely go down, as has been seen in the Netherlands with regards to marijuana and other drugs.  However, this is unlikely as there seems to be no middle ground (where cognitive enhancement would be) in the debate, except for some scholars who advocate the use of cognitive enhancers.  In general, the tone and perception of Ritalin and other ADHD drugs are that people who have been diagnosed as having ADHD need the medication to be able to function fully in society, or people who use the drug without a prescription are snorting it to get high like cocaine.  Until the middle ground is more widely understood by more people, or politicians stop using the “I’m hard on drugs” stance to garner votes, there will be little to no discussion of the issue by politicians.  Also, it is likely that people will equate cognitive enhancers with steroids and treat the two separate issues as the same, making it harder still for potential legislation and an honest discussion of the pros and cons to be had.



[1] http://www.add-adhd.org/ritalin.html

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7684963.stm

[3] http://www.aacap.org/cs/2007_state_alerts/ritalin_bill_passes_into_law_in_utah

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8106957.stm

[5] http://www.law.stanford.edu/news/details/3227/Pill%20Power/

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/feb/21/smart-drugs-students-universities