Smart drugs or smart drug marketing?
Irresponsible marketing of drugs as ‘smart’, ‘new’ or ‘designer’ has led a new generation to believe that the old rules of addictive behaviour do not apply to them – the scientific and medical community has sat passively on the side for too long, warns Professor Oscar D’Agnone
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We have all heard about the rising use of so-called ‘smart drugs’, ‘club drugs’ or ‘legal highs’, all of which tend to hit the headlines around school and college exam periods, festivals and so on. But not many of these drugs – or the associated addicted behaviour around them – are particularly novel or glamorous.
We seem to have come full cycle when it comes to drug abuse and the type of drugs that young people are taking. The increased use of so-called ‘smart drugs’ around exam period eerily echoes the abuse of amphetamines in the 1970s by students hoping to improve their academic performance. Even ‘club drugs’ have for the most part been around for some time – MDMA, marketed as Ecstasy, was produced as far back as 1912.
The difference between now and the 1970s is the perception around drugs. Drug use in those days was related to a contra culture movement, not a brain dysfunction. In the days of LSD, marijuana and speed, nobody knew much about drugs until strange things started to happen. These include horrendous side effects, such as lifelong cognitive impairments, memory loss and attention deficit. Once this became apparent, most young people moved away from them. Only the most vulnerable continued using or moved up the chemical ladder. For them, heroin and crack cocaine were the next stop.
Today, we are faced with a completely different – and more worrying – situation. Dangerous drugs such as methylphenidate, amphetamine derivates, modafinil and others are being marketed as ‘smart’, ‘new’ or ‘designer’, when in reality they are none of these things.
Not only are these drugs being cynically marketed to sound appealing to younger people, but we risk underestimating the huge impact that alcohol and drugs have on our culture.
New research reveals that London is the cocaine capital of Europe, and widespread use of cocaine among city brokers is perceived as intrinsically linked to that job description. The growing culture of acceptance and denial of danger, coupled with well-marketed substances flooding the market, has led people to believe that the old rules of addictive behaviour do not apply to them. Drug addiction doesn’t seem to have a place in a world of smart phones and designer drugs, but is mistakenly regarded as a relic of the past. Drug addicts are the 1970 students who made that move to heroin and crack cocaine, not the star football players on campus.
We need to overcome this cultural of acceptance and expose these dangerous and strange substances for what they really are if we want to do something about excessive alcohol and drug use in the younger generation. To do this, we need other experts to get involved, not only those treating the consequences.
We need a smart prevention marketing strategy which repackages stimulant drugs to make them less appealing to the young generation. Calling them novel psychoactive substances, smart drugs or legal highs only adds to the glamorous halo the dealers and other interested parties aim to create around them.
‘Legal highs’ are not safe – they should be called “strange molecules” as they can be even more dangerous than traditional drugs because it is impossible to know what chemicals are in them and have been consumed. ‘Smart drugs’ are anything but smart: most of them have been used in the past to help treat intellectual or emotional deficit. I doubt they would be so appealing if packaged in that light.
The scientific and medical community has sat passively on the side for far too long. Even worse, it has started to adopt the names drug marketers give them as the status quo.
If it quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Let’s start calling these drugs for what they really are and set the tone around these dangerous substances, rather than letting the suppliers own the debate.
OSCAR D’AGNONE is a consultant psychiatrist with over 30 years’ experience in clinical practice and academia. He is medical director for CRI in England and Wales, responsible for over 30,000 patients. He is honorary professor of the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, Institute of Brain Behaviour and Mental Health at the University of Manchester, a founding member of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, and is author of two books on Cocaine and Prevention Strategies. He was a specialist adviser to the Argentinean Presidency on drug treatment and prevention, secretary of Education and Psychiatry for the World Psychiatric Association and chair of a Harvard Medical International Joint Programme.