Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why Don't We Have Better Designer Drugs?

Just one of the millions of cool pictures of pills you find when you google images of pills.  I got the image here but I don't know where they got it from or what it means.
Do we, or do we not, live in the most advanced consumer culture ever?  We do.

Has there ever been a world so focused on, and so successful at, meeting the immediate desires of its citizens?  There has not.

So why, exactly, am I still relying on caffeine and white wine as my go-to recreational drugs?

It's weird.  In most domains we have far transcended the idea that for something to be worth buying it has to solve some problem.  No one thinks shoes are just for keeping your feet from the ground; no one thinks cake is pointless because it's empty calories; no one thinks that "having a high quality TV" means you can't buy a higher quality, HD TV.  We make and buy stuff that we expect to enhance our well-being, not just treat our difficulties.

But in the drug domain, we don't use this approach at all.  Instead, you got two kinds of drugs:  those to treat medical conditions, and those that are illegal.  OK, we have three kinds of drugs:  treatment, illegal and "alcohol and caffeine."

What is surprising is that the taboo against recreational drugs persists even in the face of a tidal wave of free-market, desire-satisfaction, if-it's-something-you-are-willing-to-pay-for-someone-will-make-it  commodity approach to virtually everything else.  I mean, you're telling me it's less weird to pay someone to carry your baby than it is to pay someone to develop some feel-good drugs?

I think the prohibition is really a lingering effect of some kind of puritanical you-shouldn't-be-having-too-much-fun kind of thinking.  But there are two kinds of arguments that get trotted out for why people shouldn't take relatively harmless drugs.  The first is that they're bad for you:  they're addictive, they have side-effects, they'll hurt you in the long run.  The second is that being fucked up is, like, somehow "letting other people down" and "not being there for them."

I hope it's obvious that the first kind of argument isn't an argument against recreational drug use, it's an argument for better recreational drugs.  It's true that a lot of drugs -- recreational and therapeutic -- can be addictive and harmful, but clearly this means we need more research and better recreational drugs, ones that aren't bad for you.  It's funny.  I mean, in this past week's New Yorker there's a story about saving the banana from some huge blight by genetic engineering, like putting the genes of some animals and other plants into bananas so that they don't respond to the virus by killing themselves.  And I'm thinking, You mean, we can put worm genes into bananas but we can't come up with an anti-depressant that doesn't cause a page of fine print conditions like decreased libido?  Very strange.

The second kind of argument -- that you're letting people down -- is more complicated.  Sometimes it's a sensible thing to say, like if someone is zonked out on some narcotic all day, then it's probably true that they're not really cutting it as a parent or sibling or friend or even pet owner.  Even a dog can't live with someone who is out of it all the time.  But here, of course, we're just back at point one, because if there were subtler recreational drugs we could feel good without being all zonked out.

Other times it's a less sensible thing to say, like when people make the claim that there's something wrong with having four glasses of wine on the weekend because gee, if something happened you wouldn't be able to drive someone somewhere, like, to the hospital.  I'm sorry but that is a really weak argument.  For one thing, it actually is possible to live where you don't have to drive.  And secondly, Hello, You're supposed to call 911 in an emergency, not try to drive.  The idea that we have to be in driving condition all the time is like driving-mania taken to an absurd extreme.  Forget drug addition; that is like driving addiction.

Anyway, I was thinking about our need for better recreational drugs just the other day, when I woke feeling really tired, and also kind of sad.  And on thinking it over, I realized that the reason I felt kind of sad was that I was so tired.  I'm a person who really likes being involved in projects and doing stuff, and when I don't have the energy to get all involved in things, I start to muse on the pointlessness of life, and then I get depressed. 

I think on this given day, I just had a bit of a cold.  But it was a powerful reminder of how much a mood or feeling depends on physical elements of the body.  I mean, you may be feeling sad, but maybe you're just physically worn down.

And if that's true, then wouldn't a harmless pick me up drug be a wonderful thing?  You could have a whole day of being happy instead of unhappy.

Most of the recreational drugs consumer culture needs are familiar, because people have wanted them for a long time:

1.  We need a kind of caffeine-like drug that has a higher quality high and doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

2.  We need a drug that mimics the effect of alcohol but doesn't have any calories or bad health effects.  Preferably one that doesn't make you feel bad or hungover when it wears off.

3.  We need a kind of Adderall-for-everyone drug.  A drug that makes you concentrate better, but doesn't have bad effects and doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

4.  We need a good aphrodisiac.  Don't we?  Am I wrong?  Preferably one that doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

5.  How about something like nicotine?  Almost perfect as is, except for the bad health effects.  Oh, and the addictiveness.  And make sure it doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

The common theme, of course, is that we need the upsides of drugs without the downsides.  Shouldn't that be possible?  I mean, we can put a man on the moon, yada yada yada, surely I can have my cake and eat it too?

Can't I?

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