Movements for justice have historically been driven by a small percentage of any population. One percent of Americans nonviolently occupying Washington, D.C., could make Cairo and Madison and Madrid look like warm-up acts. It is certainly true that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens is the only thing that ever has changed the world for the better.
So, what happens if a society picks out a significant slice of its population, one including many thoughtful and committed citizens, and drugs them?
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) held a first-time, one-day, little publicized event last September that allowed people to turn in their extra prescription drugs. The DEA reports collecting 242,000 pounds or 121 tons. A second such day was held in April with 376,593 pounds or 188 tons of pills collected. This is the stuff nobody wants and is willing to hand in to the government. This is not the amount that’s out in circulation. That amount is no doubt in proportion to the roaring flood of television ads for the stuff. “More Americans currently abuse prescription drugs,” says the DEA, “than the number of those using cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin combined. . . . [I]ndividuals that abuse prescription drugs often obtained them from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet.” And that’s just the users said to be abusing.
Ted Rall suggested drugging to me as a possible explanation for the big mystery staring us in the face, namely why Americans sit back and take so much more than other people from their government. The Patriot Act is being put on steroids with hardly a peep of protest. The “Defense Authorization Act” now before Congress would give presidents virtually limitless power to single-handedly make wars or imprison people. This is the biggest formal transfer of power in the U.S. government since the drafting of its Constitution. This undoes the American War for Independence. But perhaps we’d still be 13 colonies if Prozac and Zoloft had come along sooner.
“Like many people,” says Rall, “I have often wondered why so many Americans seem so emotionally flat and politically apathetic in response to a political and economic landscape that cries out for protest, or at least complaint. Could it be that our society’s most angry — justifiably angry — are being medicated into quiescence?” It does seem possible. I don’t mean to discount the fact that the United States imprisons record numbers of people. I’m willing to share some blame with our education system, our so-called news media, our religiosity, the two-party trap, and several other likely factors. But drugs looks like the big one that is nonetheless hardest to see. People don’t usually tell you they’re drugged, but chances are at least one in 10 people you meet is.
Two years ago, a study found that “the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled to 10.1 percent of the population in 2005 compared with 1996, increasing across income and age groups.” One year earlier, another study had found that close to 10 percent of men and women in America were taking drugs to combat depression, and that 11 percent of women were taking antidepressants.”
Author and clinical psychologist Bruce Levine tells me this may be even worse than it sounds. “If you are around certain populations,” Levine says, “that 10 percent stat seems very low, especially among healthcare professionals and college students.” College students? I can remember them getting pretty thoughtful and committed in times past. “And that 10 percent,” Levine adds, “only includes the ‘official antidepressants’ such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Effexor, etc. This stat doesn’t include people using ADHD drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, etc. to stimulate themselves.”
Adderall, Levine explained, is an amphetamine that affects the same neurotransmitters as cocaine (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine), “and if one takes the antidepressant Effexor (affects serotonin and norepinephrine) at the same time one is taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin (affects dopamine), one can sense the hypocrisy in labeling certain psychotropics (drugs that affects neurotransmitters) as ‘antidepressants’ and other psychotropics as ‘ADHD psychostimulants.’ Lots of people — especially young people — are popping ‘Addies’ (street name for Adderall) to ‘motivate’ them to get them through their lives, especially during exam time.”
Levine said he’s counseling a young man who is supplementing his income by selling ADHD psychostimulant drugs to his fellow college students. He gets the best price around final exam time. “He told me, ‘Bruce, you’ve got to do better improving the self-esteem of these young kids who you are counseling.’ Why, I ask him, why do you care? ‘Well,’ he says, ‘these little brats who are getting their freebie prescription Addies feel so crappie about themselves that they are giving away their Addies to their older brothers for free just so they will hang out with them, and all those freebie Addies on the market are driving price down for me.”
Levine stresses that Adderall, like nicotine or caffeine or cocaine, provides a buzz that antidepressants do not. In fact, he points out, the so-called antidepressant drugs make people twice as likely to commit suicide. Levine concedes that some people swear antidepressants have saved their lives, but points out that people will say that about a placebo as well. The evidence, Levine says, shows antidepressants working no better than a placebo at lifting people out of depression.
Antidepressants may bear as Orwellian a name as the Patriot Act, but Levine finds the latter easier to talk about with people. “I get less grief,” Levine tells me, “when I talk about something like anarchism and Emma Goldman than when I talk about antidepressants’ effectiveness and [author] Irving Kirsch, as abstract political ideologies are far less threatening than people’s very own drugs.” Political movements may in fact be less threatening to those in power, because of people’s drugs.