MDMA: A Prescription for the Police?
I recently read an article about those baddest of bad guys, Nazi Germany, and how their toolkit for perpetrating war contained quite a bit of chemical help.
Pervitin — something we now call by the street name speed — was doled out like candy to soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Germans’ invading force that conquered Europe during 1939-1940. This methamphetamine was prized for its fight-all-night qualities — increased vitality, speed, and motivation, and reduced need to rest while you’re mid-blitzkrieg. (Later in the war they would add cocaine to the mix. Seriously.)
The Wehrmacht also encouraged the use of more alcohol than you’d think military discipline would allow — because of alcohol’s propensity for reducing moral hang-ups about extreme behavior. And let’s face it: When you’re the Nazis, morality is just sand in your gears.
But the Nazis are far from the only military to encourage, or even mandate, the use of psychotropic drugs by personnel.
It’s a downright common practice.
If you sign up for the U.S. military today, you’re contractually obligated to allow Uncle Sam to inject you with… well, pretty much whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without telling you any more than he wants to about what you’re being injected with.
I’m not a big fan of the “not telling you what you’re being injected with” part, but the fact that injections are sometimes a job requirement… that strikes me as reasonable.
If a soldier is going up against an enemy known to use certain chemical agents, mandating the use of a prophylactic antiserum makes good sense. This could be true even if the antiserum has known, limited downsides. The wear-n-tear on an individual soldier’s body, in a utilitarian sense, may be more than justified when held up against the downsides to the soldier and his team, should he succumb to a chemical attack.
And militaries aren’t alone.
Many professions, implicitly or explicitly, require taking drugs.
- Third-world doctors need vaccinations.
- Lifeguards unwittingly but unavoidably take in daily transdermal cocktails from sunscreens and pool-cleaning agents.
- Sommeliers and people who lead wine-tasting tours… well, you get the point.
But the usual pros-and-cons pragmatism of public opinion regarding professional drug use gets complicated when the drugs involved affect people’s minds.
Caffeine is the one substance that society gives a free pass. No one seems up in arms about people making a Starbucks-stop on the way to work, or (gasp!) going for a second cup of joe in the staff kitchen.
All other psychoactive drugs, though, raise eyebrows.
I’ve revealed myself as the stray kid who slipped through Nancy Reagan’s thought-net, and doesn’t believe all drugs are always bad, always.
An easy example: Despite the staggering numbers of Americans taking antidepressants, there’s a sort of society-wide “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. We know that some of our staff, co-workers, and bosses are using these things — but we’d prefer not to think about it.
I’m about to go off the rails and get all crazy now.
If you’re easily shocked, please brace yourself.
The fact is, there are situations where people are better at their jobs with their mental states chemically altered.
As a boss, I like my employees to be perked-up from caffeine. (I’ve openly encouraged Caffeine Naps in my office.)
It may be that Sarah in Accounting is a lot more effective on her antidepressant meds than off them.
And if Bill in IT happens to maintain a Ritalin prescription that he doesn’t technically need — but it helps him to focus better — who am I to complain?
Now that I’ve revealed myself as the stray kid who slipped through Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” thought-net, and doesn’t believe that all drugs are always bad, always, let’s continue…
I want to talk about a class of professions where the professionals’ psychological states really, really matter: Those who are authorized and empowered to use violence. The men and women who carry guns.
This is pure self-interest on my part: Someone’s thoughts and mood matter a heck of a lot more to me if he or she is potentially authorized to hurt me, and has the means and training to do so.
Today is a dark day for American law enforcement.
“To Protect and Serve” seems increasingly like a euphemism for “To Bully, Beat Down, and Skip the Consequences.” Some recent Hall of Shame examples:
- 2014 saw the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri…
- …followed this year by the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
- And even more recently, the post-beating death of Freddie Gray.
- In fact, while it’s not entirely clear how many people police kill each year, this much is true: If you are a non-military U.S. civilian, you’ve got a 20 times greater chance of being killed by a cop, than being killed by a terrorist.
- If you think I’m just cherry-picking national-level outrages, consider this: The NYPD – a big jurisdiction, sure, but still, only one jurisdiction – paid out over one billion dollars settling lawsuits in the first decade of this century.
The number, severity, and “you’ve got to be kidding me!?” nature of these stories make police aggression seem like a systemic problem. All sorts of solutions should be explored (and, to be fair, probably are being explored): Changes to hiring practices. Increased oversight. Stronger carrot-and-stick incentives for good and bad behavior.
What about a chemical intervention?
How would you feel if Pfizer or Dow Chemicals or Merck invented a substance that could chill out the police a bit? Not impair them functionally, but change their minds, maybe change the way they see the world… And reduce their impulse toward violence.
I’m not talking “Don’t pull out your gun when you’re in danger”; I don’t want to endanger our police any more than I want them to endanger the rest of us. I’m talking about “Don’t continue clubbing the guy who’s already collapsed on the ground” or “Don’t apply the Taser to the grandmother.”
If such a drug were theoretically available, wouldn’t it be worth a field-test? A trial program in a few precincts, to see if excess police violence is damped down a bit?
I hope you’re nodding.
What if such a drug already exists?
What if it is MDMA?
Yeah, it’s an illegal drug. A rave drug. The main ingredient in Ecstasy*, the serotonin-dumping, dance-all-night-in-laser-light pill that flooded America in the 1990s and has been a Schedule-1 narcotic — both highly illegal and highly popular — ever since. That drug.
* Ecstasy often contains speed and other additives, and is not pure MDMA.
Someone’s thoughts and mood matter a heck of a lot more to me if he or she is authorized to hurt me, and has the means and training to do so.
Just humor me for a moment and try to forget that MDMA is an illegal, recreational substance.
Let’s look at the demonstrated positive effects on its users:
- MDMA increases the release of oxytocin and prolactin (hormones associated with trust and bonding).
- MDMA significantly decreases activity in the left amygdala, associated with fear and traumatic memory.
- Animal studies have shown MDMA to dose-dependently decrease aggressive behavior.
- Users often report ongoing improvements to their mood, and to feelings of trust and fellowship with others — long after the drug has dropped to physiologically undetectable levels.
I’m not proposing cops get high and go out on patrol. I’m proposing cops get high, feel the love that MDMA seems to reliably bestow… and then sleep it off, and go to work a day or two later.
Am I crazy to suspect that the psychic nudge this drug might give would make police violence a little less likely? Isn’t that what we’re after?
Okay. I realize there are some “yes, buts” that I’ve got to address now…
“Yes, But… Will It Work?”
First off, that‘s not the right question. We should test this crazy idea. Not assume I’m right based on a blog post.
I’m not proposing a policy. I’m proposing a study.
I’m making a testable hypothesis, and trying to convince you that it’s worth investigating.
“Okay, So… Could It Work?”
Now you’re talking. I think yes, and here’s why:
What horrifies us about our increasingly militarized, overly-aggressive police force isn’t that it has the capacity for violence, but that this capacity is being too liberally applied.
Let’s assume we’re okay with bad guys getting a billy-club in the face or a firm tasing every now and then. The important thing is to reduce the number of billy-clubs-to-the-face for everyone else.
It’s the duty of law enforcement personnel to make tough, real-world, real-time decisions on “does this situation merit violence?”
If you are a non-military U.S. civilian, you’ve got a 20 times greater chance of being killed by a cop, than being killed by a terrorist.
Now please permit me to interrupt with a quick diversion into statistics, so we can talk about something important called a “false positive.” We’ll keep the math simple and this whole thing quick…
A “false positive” is when you’re looking for something — and you think you find it — but you’re wrong.
You’re separating out green M&M’s, and you mis-identify a brown M&M as green and add it to the green pile. That brown M&M is a false positive. (A green M&M that you miss, and doesn’t wind up in the green pile, would be a false negative.)
False positives, it turns out, are exactly what society hates, when it comes to cops and violence.
Let’s look at an example with simple numbers:
Officer Jones has 1000 interactions with civilians over the course of a year. In each interaction, he’s got to do some mental calculus and decide “does this situation merit violence?”
And let’s say we’re the Jiminy Cricket of Public Conscience, and we know the correct answer is 10. In 10 of these interactions, the person needs some billy-clubbing; everyone else should leave Officer Jones’ presence unscathed. This would be the perfect-world scenario.
But the real world has error rates. Officer Jones is not perfect, and he mis-reads the situation 1% of the time. In these cases, he will either billy-club, or fail to billy-club, the correct people.
So the 10 times over the course of the year when he runs into an actual violence-deserver, with only a 1% error rate, chances are good that all 10 of them will get the club-treatment. (9.9 is what statistics would predict, so pretty close.)
False positives, it turns out, are exactly what society hates, when it comes to cops and violence.
The problem is, that same 1% error rate, applied to the 990 people who don’t deserve clubbing, means that 10 people (990 x 1% = 9.9) are going to get thwacked, also. Yikes.
So Officer Jones will beat down 20 people during the year, and half of them won’t deserve it.
What started as an innocuous-sounding 1% error rate has resulted in a 50% mis-application of violence*, with 10 officer-delivered assaults on undeserving civilians.
The disparity between that 1% and the 50%, both of which are “true”, is why Mark Twain famously quipped: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Thanks for bearing with me on that detour.
I needed to do that, so we can understand why an MDMA-induced tweak in cops’ instinct-to-violence might matter so much.
If MDMA could theoretically make a cop’s move for the billy-club 50% less likely, we’d be cutting our innocent-civilian beatings from 10 down to 5. Not perfect, but a great start.
But wait — we’d also be cutting our righteous manhandling of violence-deserving criminals from 10 down to 5, wouldn’t we? Well yes, we would — but there’s something important to consider here:
The only situation when cops should apply violence is when doing so will protect themselves or others from physical danger. If a cop is dealing with someone, and that person moves from being a possible threat to being a definitive threat — that’s generally a pretty unambiguous move. A person goes from yelling and waving his arms around, to throwing punches, etc.
So in nerdy terms, a false negative (a cop not using violence, when he should) tends to be a self-correcting situation — because no cop is going to ignore violence right in front of him — whereas a false positive (a cop using violence, when he shouldn’t) isn’t self-correcting, because it’s the cop who has prematurely upped the ante.
So what we’d be hoping for with MDMA, is a general de-itching of cops’ trigger fingers. Making the pause a little longer, the hesitation a little greater, before Johnny Law commits to the use of force.
This approach works because the number of times violence shouldn’t be used dwarfs the number of times violence should be used. This will always be true in civil society. (In fact, in any non-zombie-apocalypse scenario.)
So if we accept the premise that MDMA may reduce cops’ inclination to violence, then the answer to “Could It Work?” (or at least “Could It Help?”) seems to be a resounding yes.
“Yes, But… Tweaking With Cops’ Minds Is Unethical.”
Is it? Because… we do this already.
A cop’s psychological state is society’s business. (And we may soon decide the same about other professions like airline pilots, where professionals carry the lives of many civilians in their hands.)
We’ve all seen TV shows where cops — often griping about it — are forced to meet with a psychologist and “talk about their feelings,” etc. Script-writers love this as an easy way to layer in character development, but there’s good reason why these characters’ real-world equivalents exist. Police psychologists are representatives for us tax-paying civilians who want our peace officers mentally well-calibrated. (Too frequently nowadays, we have reason to wonder.)
Normally when this tweaking with people’s minds is unethical objection comes up, those making the objection are not opposed to the general concept (tweaking), but to the specific methodology (in this case, with psychoactive compounds). Objections to “skillfully presented verbal arguments,” for example, don’t hold much weight with anyone — although such arguments can tweak people’s minds as effectively as any drug.
Let’s accept that we influence other people’s minds constantly. Pleasant colors in hospital waiting rooms. Soothing music in dentist’s office. Perfumes to attract romantic partners. As social animals, it is our constant endeavor to manipulate the mental states of our fellows.
So let’s overrule this objection and move on.
“Yes, But… What About the Cops’ Physical Health?”
MDMA has physical downsides.
- At high or frequent doses, MDMA can be neurotoxic if the user’s body temperature is not properly regulated — and MDMA adversely impacts the body’s ability to self-regulate its temperature.
- Researchers have measured a steep increase in oxidative radicals in the first few hours after MDMA is given.
- Hyperthyroidism could predispose users to hyperthermia (extreme overheating).
All that said, MDMA seems to be not that physically detrimental. It’s dangerous, but manageable. In a UK study published in the Lancet (the world’s oldest medical journal), Ecstasy was ranked only 16 out of 20 on a list of dangerous drugs based on harm to the user and harm to others.
A Personal Note…
Just in case you think I’m writing this piece as a recreational user who thinks the world would be a better place if MDMA were in every public drinking fountain, let me offer full disclosure:
I’ve never tried the stuff.
The truth is, despite ample opportunities, I’ve always been a bit unnerved by MDMA’s reputation for “serotonin recuperation hangovers.” I’m not eager to do anything that could undercut my body’s natural production of serotonin (a “feel good” neurotransmitter). So, at least for the moment, it’s not for me.
But then, I don’t carry a gun. I’m not the one tazing septuagenarians or beating civilians to death while “taking them into custody.”
Modest physical downsides to someone like me — an unarmed, not-particularly-dangerous civilian — might not be worth the benefit of damping down my instinct towards violence…
But for a member of an increasingly dangerous police force, maybe it’s time to bite the psychopharmacological bullet and do the science to learn if MDMA’s use might be worth the speculative benefits.
I’m completely ignoring an elephant in the room: MDMA is the primary ingredient in something called “Ecstasy” — it’s reputed to be intensely pleasurable, and many cops might jump at the chance to take it.
I Am Not Anti-Police.
Not even a little.
I’m fully aware that most cops don’t do this terrible stuff.
The ones we hear about are ugly statistical anomalies. But in a nation of 300 million people, including hundreds of thousands of cops, statistical anomalies will happen predictably, year-in and year-out.
This proposal is about strategically reducing those violent anomalies.
So, why not run a pilot program?
Take a few precincts across the country, and make the program strictly voluntary. Cops who want to fool around with some MDMA, maybe even occasionally micro-dosing while on the beat, are free to do so. Cops who want to abstain, can.
Run the test programs for 2-3 years. See what happens to police violence during that time. See what happens to police-community relations during that time. If there are violent incidents, see how many of them are from the MDMA users vs. everyone else in the “control group.”
This is what science is about, right?
Make a hypothesis, test it, review the results, and make decisions based on accumulated evidence.
Hitler wanted his Wehrmacht to be energetic, assertive, and morally compromised. He used a chemical cocktail of methamphetamine, booze and cocaine to accomplish that. His goal was despicable, but his logic was sound.
I would like to see America’s police force calmer, less hostile, and more cognizant of the overall Brotherhood of Man.
If MDMA could edge our cops in that direction, isn’t it worth an honest-to-goodness social experiment?
Or are we so poisoned by Nancy Reagan Just Say No dogmatism — and afraid of finding a legitimate use for a “party drug” — that we’re willing to continue getting our asses beat by our peace officers?
Let’s grow up, get serious, and do some damned science.
Acknowledgment to this excellent article by ex-police-officer Redditt Hudson, on America’s problems with violence and institutionalized racism within the police community.