America’s War on Drugs, which started during the Nixon Administration, has now lasted longer than World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined at a cost to taxpayers of more than $51B annually.12 That’s more than the entire combined budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC) Expansion Grants, and at least seven other major grant programs all devoted to substance abuse or mental health support.3
But today, we’re staring down a very different challenge to human health and prosperity, with similarly risky dimensions of addiction, and increasingly epidemic proportions. The villain? Digital drugs: the powerful brain chemicals and mood-regulating neurotransmitters that are triggered by digital devices, digital content, and indiscriminate consumption of digital assets.
Illicit substances have long commanded headlines, and will continue to test the capabilities of healthcare practitioners, policy makers, and members of the law enforcement community. Opioids in particular will continue to factor prominently in an ongoing national conversation about mental health and public safety.
But prohibited plants, powders, and prescription pills are no longer the only variety of drugs urgently deserving our attention. Digital drugs are a far bigger issue. We estimate that the battle over physical drug trafficking in the U.S. directly impacts an estimated 30M Americans: about one in 12.4 Digital drugs, on the other hand, impact every person using devices and screens—hundreds of millions, just in America. It’s not just proscribed substances that have a profound impact on behavioural health — it’s everyday content.
Digital drugs have become a real danger — and remain largely unregulated.
It has become apparent that, at least with respect to the public health dimensions of drug policy, a key impediment to progress on the issue of addiction to digital drugs is the persistent focus on illegal substances and the concentration of time and talent on interdiction, eradication, or demand suppression of these physical drugs.
But it’s not just a matter of time or resource misallocation. At the moment, digital drugs are completely unregulated, and their positive or negative effects on the body are poorly and unevenly communicated by clinicians. Agencies like the FDA do not yet have jurisdiction, and labelling practices are virtually nonexistent. Moreover, many policy makers still don’t consider digital materials or digital assets drugs at all.
And yet the digital drug dilemma is of nearly equal importance to the ongoing battle with prescription pain meds. Consider the fact that Americans, on average, spend around two-thirds of their waking hours consuming media.5 That’s more time than we spend eating, drinking and sleeping combined. And excessive screen-time has been strongly linked to increased rates of anxiety and depression, isolation, and suicidality.7
We’ve been through massive technological disruptions before. Each of them introduced profound challenges that might have seemed unique or even insurmountable at the time, but we managed to navigate our way through them.