A German MP on meth: Enhancement or not?

German MP Michael Hartmann was recently in the news because of his crystal meth use. The media was quick to compare Hartmann to other politicians who use other substances: the past marijuana use of Clinton and Obama, and the recent scandal around the crack addiction of Canadian mayor Rob Ford. The media also stresses that it is hypocritical that Michael Hartmann previously publicly opposed the use of cannabis. The media enforces the image most people have: all substance use is the same and equals addiction, low self-control and bad morals.
However, what I find interesting in this case is that Hartmann himself stresses that he used the methamphetamine to enhance his performance. He states that he only used low quantities, and that he wasn’t addicted. Police evidence and a psychiatric report seem to support this: no traces of meth were found in his private home, and he showed no signs of being addicted. If his main motivation was to enhance his performance, it isn’t hypocritical of him to oppose the use of cannabis. While methamphetamine is a so called upper, which can indeed enhance performance, cannabis is a downer, and is mostly associated with a decrease in motivation. Although for people with sleeping difficulties or chronic pain marijuana use also functions as an enhancer. Not all drugs are the same and Hartmann’s case is hard to compare with Ford’s, who admitted he was addicted, and whose behaviour got out of control (by his own standards) rather than enhanced by his crack use. Hartmann substance use was only discovered after a dealer named him, and not because his behaviour got out of control.
Neuroscientist Carl Hart has often pointed out that we only study cases of problematic use: of addiction. Very little is known about successful use, despite the fact that most people that use substance don’t become addicted. What I would like to know is whether it worked for Hartmann. Did his low quantity meth use increased his performance? In some of his confessions he describes his meth use as a misplaced plan at greater efficiency or a drive for better performance. But is it misplaced because it is illegal, or misplaced because it didn’t work as an enhancer? And what if Hartmann was indeed more efficient in his work while on meth?
The people that govern us should have moral integrity. They should not violate the laws. But maybe experimenting with certain substances, and having real life experience with them, will help them design better drug policies. In that sense it would be beneficial if Hartmann wasn’t forced to confess his experiences with meth as a scapegoat, but rather if he and other politicians could speak openly about their experiences with substances.
I remember interviews with Dutch politicians who were asked, among other things, about their substance use. One politician, who later became PM replied: ‘I never used drugs, from a young age I already knew that substances were bad’. Another politician however admitted that she used cocaine and hashish while she was a student. She didn’t dramatized her substance use in any sense, but very honestly described the different effects the different substances had on her, how cocaine for example gave her a sense of confidence. For me she had more credibility than the politician who never used substances. When Clinton had to confess his marijuana use, he claimed that he didn’t inhale. Obama however, admitted that he inhaled, as that is the point of smoking marijuana. But both describe their substance use as something they regret, as a foolish think they did when they were young.
Many fear that if politicians speak openly about their substance use, they will lower the threshold for young people to use substances, exposing them to the risk of becoming addicted. But maybe if the public debate around substance was more nuanced, and incorporated the pleasurable effects of substance and the enhancement effect of substances, maybe then will we find out more about what distinguish successful use from unsuccessful use.

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2 Responses to A German MP on meth: Enhancement or not?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    A few years back I was planning to write a paper about whether political decisionmakers should take cognitive enhancers. I thought I had a good case: there is evidence for pervasive sleep deprivation, it is a high cognitive demand job that is often stressful, and clearly we want better decisionmaking in people making decisions that affect all of society. Then I spent a week in Westminster (as part of the Royal Society Scientist-MP Pairing Scheme, very recommended).

    What I realized during the week was that enhancing individual politicians might be good for them: no doubt that they have a fairly intense job. But beyond that, the benefit of enhancement is not clear: actual political decisions are not made by individuals very often, but rather through a collective cognitive process where committees discuss and negotiate. Making members more alert does not clearly lead to improved joint decisions. Groups have their own cognitive biases and epistemic bottlenecks quite different from individuals; even a genius insight will not be able to overcome the logic of procedure and well-established interests. If we want better governance we need to improve the collective part.

    I think politicians are as justified as anybody else in using cognitive enhancers to cope with a tough job. They might have reasons to be a bit cautious since they do have a representative function beside their negotiative function, and some enhancers might have biasing effects (but again, individual biases may not be as relevant as group biases). We may still want to prevent dis-enhancement: that we accept decisions done in sleep deprived states is problematic (http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2013/02/dont-stay-up-and-decide-sleep-deprivation-and-the-culture-of-late-night-summits/ ).

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    A few years back I was planning to write a paper about whether political decisionmakers should take cognitive enhancers. I thought I had a good case: there is evidence for pervasive sleep deprivation, it is a high cognitive demand job that is often stressful, and clearly we want better decisionmaking in people making decisions that affect all of society. Then I spent a week in Westminster (as part of the Royal Society Scientist-MP Pairing Scheme, very recommended).

    What I realized during the week was that enhancing individual politicians might be good for them: no doubt that they have a fairly intense job. But beyond that, the benefit of enhancement is not clear: actual political decisions are not made by individuals very often, but rather through a collective cognitive process where committees discuss and negotiate. Making members more alert does not clearly lead to improved joint decisions. Groups have their own cognitive biases and epistemic bottlenecks quite different from individuals; even a genius insight will not be able to overcome the logic of procedure and well-established interests. If we want better governance we need to improve the collective part.

    I think politicians are as justified as anybody else in using cognitive enhancers to cope with a tough job. They might have reasons to be a bit cautious since they do have a representative function beside their negotiative function, and some enhancers might have biasing effects (but again, individual biases may not be as relevant as group biases). We may still want to prevent dis-enhancement: that we accept decisions done in sleep deprived states is problematic.

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