Integrity Matters
October 13 , 2004

What ethics are involved with legal drugs

Question: (E-146)

Dear Jim:

Our society has access to legal drugs that can improve performance. How ought they be used? For example: should pilots take speed to enhance their flight skills, especially when they might be tired, unrelated to work schedule?


Thank you, readers, in advance for responding to my request for some input. Now in my third year writing this column, I need your assistance. What is your thinking about using drugs -- legally, of course, to improve performance? I've identified five areas of concern below. But first, allow me to provide a little background information regarding how a drug, with multiple applications, can, when used, create integrity issues.

Sharon Begley's comments in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 1 illustrate the issue: "Some musicians and nervous public speakers take beta blockers (a heart drug) to vanquish stage fright. Modafinil (also known as Provigil) is a stimulant approved for narcolepsy, but it has an underground following among those who want to feel as alert and rest after five hours of sleep as after eight. Ritalin, for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, improves concentration and the ability to plan, make it popular among healthy adults who simply want an edge in multi-tasking."

So, where might this "seeming technological magic" lead us? Will society be improved by "better performance through chemistry" -- having uncovered golden opportunities to leverage scientific discoveries? Or, will these "breakthroughs" open the way to life-altering abuse of our bodies and minds and hurl us down a morally bankrupt slippery slope, where the ends always justify the means?

When a legal drug has applications (perceived as constructive and positive) in areas other than the disease or problem area for which it was originally designed and created, should it be banned or controlled? Here is an example. If a drug can improve memory and increase short-term data recall, ought students, who may or may not have studied for an examination, use the drug to score higher and potentially cause their standing in the class to qualify them for scholarships and awards?

At what point in the supply chain should these legal drugs be controlled? Is the prescribing physician responsible to prevent abuses? Is it the job of the druggist? What is the responsibility of the drug company?

Should Congress pass laws to guide the use of these important and powerful substances? Or should we assume that individuals will regulate themselves and distinguish between what is appropriate and destructive?

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