The government's official experts on illegal drugs have been asked to look at whether intelligence-enhancing drugs, such as those used by students to boost performance in exams, should be banned.
Brain GainGovernment watchdog considers ban on IQ booster drugs
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Medical experts believe that a range of psychoactive drugs that includes those used to tackle the symptoms of Alzheimer's and attention-deficit disorder in children, could fuel an already over-competitive society when used by the healthy.
Amid fears that the increase in online pharmacies means that such drugs are much more readily available, the Home Office has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to see how this "rapidly evolving field" should be regulated. Just before she stepped down from office, the previous home secretary, Jacqui Smith, asked the advisory council to assess the harm – including that of possible psychological dependence or addiction – caused by this group of drugs when used by healthy adults.
The request, disclosed in the council's annual report published today, followed a study by the Academy of Medical Sciences, which highlighted for the first time many of the problems arising from the use of these drugs by healthy adults.
"Competitive use of cognitive enhancers raises many of the same issues as the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport," said the report. "Their use could lead to problems of coercion, where there is pressure on individuals to take the drugs even if they do not wish to. Similarly, if such drugs were available to only a proportion of competitors, they could be seen as giving an unfair advantage, or to be a form of cheating."
The medical scientists pointed to the growing use of drugs designed to maintain attention or keep people awake. They cited the use of drugs, such as modafinil and methylphenidate, in the workplace to aid professional performance and by the military to increase problem-solving skills and reduce impulsive behaviour.
The new range of psychoactive "intelligence enhancers" embrace a spectrum of competitive and non-competitive uses: from students taking such drugs to get through tests, to individuals using them to curb forgetfulness. The scientists, who said a study was needed of the drugs' potential side-effects, said the concerns included possible devaluation of "normal" achievements and a potential reduction in the value of effort and motivation involved in learning.
There were also the issues of inequality where the drugs were expensive, and of exacerbating an already over-competitive culture, the study said.
A Cabinet Office paper published last year said: "Some putative enhancers are already being sold informally, especially online. At present availability is greater for such enhancers that are sold as herbal remedies or 'nutraceutical' food supplements rather than as mainstream pharmaceuticals. If effective cognition enhancers become generally available, the issue would be how best to regulate such a change in access."
The government's drug experts are to advise Alan Johnson, the home secretary, on whether he should take action to ban "legal highs" such as Spice, a herbal preparation with synthetic cannabis.
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