When drug testing professionals speculate about the future of the industry, the talk tends towards topics like more reliable tests, more sensitive tests, tamper-proofing, keeping up with new designer drugs. But what if the industry were to go off in a whole new direction?
The choice of which drugs to test for usually hinges on issues of addiction, physical harm, and the danger of actions while intoxicated. One area of exception is in professional and amateur sports. Drug testing in sports is designed to eliminate unfair competitive edges (and in some cases to minimize harm to athlete users.)
Now there are similar questions being raised regarding unfair mental advantages. While some drugs that enhance mental acuity and alertness—certain amphetamines, for example—are controlled substances, many are classified as dietary supplements. Others are drugs that are normally prescribed for other purposes but which some users (or abusers) employ for additional concentration or mental ability.
Nootropics are substances intended to boost certain mental functions, like attention, memory, and motivation. They may also be called cognitive supplements, intelligence enhancers, smart drugs, or memory enhancers. One of the most common (and legal) substances used for these purposes is caffeine. Who among us hasn’t dosed up on coffee, tea, or No-Doz to cram for college exams or get a last-minute project finished for work? Nicotine is another legal substance used for similar reasons, although evidence is clear that long-term use of nicotine-containing products can have devastating health consequences.
In recent years, more and more substances have entered this arena. Some are perfectly legal and appear to do little harm. Omega-3 fish oils, ginseng, lemon balm, sage, rosemary, tyrosine, and certain amino acids—these all can be gotten from health food and vitamin stores and have varied effects on mental function and memory.
There are also prescription drugs like Modafinil—normally used to treat narcolepsy but also employed by the military and law enforcement for extended periods of wakefulness and alertness—which some users are using to boost mental acuity.
Now questions are being raised about the fairness of using Modafinil in competitive areas. Some students at Cambridge and Oxford in England are calling for drug testing prior to exams, expressing their opinions that fellow students using such drugs are cheating and gaining unfair advantages of non-users.
Proponents of such usage argue that such drugs and supplements are the future of humanity, that just like exercise, practice, and studying, they are ways of extending our abilities in a world that demands more performance and in a career landscape that is increasingly cutthroat and competitive.
Is this a legitimate area for drug testing? Ask yourself: how would you feel if a colleague used nootropic enhancers to beat you out of a promotion? What would your reaction be if students using drug-based (rather than nutritional) cognitive boosters edged your child out of a scholarship?
While existing reasons for drug testing are not disappearing in the foreseeable future, the new horizons of the industry are uncertain–but increased opportunities for the testing industry seem inevitable.