Elvis Presley, right up until the day he died, was the poster boy for the most mysterious and enduring aspect of pharmaceutical drug addiction — namely, the fact that it isn’t perceived as drug addiction. Elvis, who in his last decade lived on alternating currents of uppers and downers, took pain medication and other “approved” substances. But like most prescription-drug casualties, he was convinced that he occupied a different sphere from all the scurrilous and sordid addicts hooked on cocaine or heroin. (He wasn’t a junkie; he was taking his medicine.) Today, if you talk about what it means to be a methamphetamine addict, you’ll conjure up a desperate, grunged-out myth of heartland depravity that’s light-years removed from the “safe” medicalized images of a dutiful shrink writing out a prescription for Adderall.
Yet in the urgent and eye-opening documentary “Take Your Pills,” which premieres today on Netflix, the director Alison Klayman deconstructs those prejudices to show you how potentially misleading and dangerous they are. Her movie focuses on the class of psychotropic stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.) that are now prescribed, at epidemic levels, to treat ADHD and other attention disabilities.
To be sure, there’s a place for these drugs. From the start, though, there has been such an orchestrated aura of medical miraculousness surrounding them that anyone who dares to question the drugs’ validity, effectiveness, or intrinsic safety is sure to be labeled a heretic. Klayman, whose first feature was the superb 2012 documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” unveils a world of bold but anxious achievers — college students, tech drones, athletes like the former NFL lineman Eben Britton — who depend, one way or another, on the heightened states they get from prescription stimulants. Yet the truth is that the drugs, chemically speaking, are close enough to amphetamines to be considered medically refined versions of them.
Amphetamine, synthesized in the 1880s, was first sold to the public in 1932, through the Benzadrine Inhaler. (The first cautionary article decrying the use of “pep pills” on campus appeared in Time magazine in 1937.) We hear a passage in which one of amphetamine’s inventors describes its effects as ecstatically as Sigmund Freud recorded the intoxication of cocaine, and the drug became legion in the ’40s and ’50s, when it was used by everyone from the Beats to World War II bomber pilots to — notoriously — suburban housewives high on diet pills. Use of amphetamine wasn’t legally restricted until the late ’60s, by which point the profound danger — as well as the romance — of drugs had become a topic of highly charged visibility.
But that, ironically, is how their widespread use became medicalized, with Big Pharma transforming prescription stimulants into a $13-billion-a-year industry. To this day, if you were to give a 7-year-old child a line of cocaine, a beer, or a hit of amphetamine, you could be arrested — and rightfully so, since it would be considered a form of child abuse. But if you put a 7-year-old on Ritalin, you’re simply doing an “advanced” good thing by treating the kid’s concentration issues. “Take Your Pills” dares to ask: What’s the difference? Is it really the chemistry of the drugs? Or is it that the psychopharmacological establishment has, in essence, co-opted the effects of amphetamine for an entire go-go society that is now running on mental overdrive?
“Take Your Pills” focuses on Adderall, which has become the overwhelming drug of choice for college students, to the point that most of the kids who take it wind up hawking a portion of their supply on the collegiate black market. That’s how great the demand is. In the tech industry, Adderall fuels 16-hour work days and takes the drudgery out of coding; on Wall Street, it has replaced cocaine as the stimulant that fuels the detailed rush of numbers-crunching profit.
Yet as we listen to the testimony, the remarkable thing is that the rampant use of these new American stimulants remains almost entirely acceptable and under the radar, because it’s been branded with something other than the A-word (that is, addiction). A student taking his or her meds, or a tech visionary looking for the kind of cerebral enhancer that was the subject of the 2011 Bradley Cooper smart-drug sci-fi drama “Limitless” (a highly influential text of the new drug culture, it turns out), is no “addict.” He or she is simply taking responsible steps to maximize their destiny.
The kinds of connections that “Take Your Pills” makes, between the culture of information overload and a radically tightened job market and heightened personal performance and the chemical itch that fuels this whole late-stage capitalist dynamic, may strike some as too speculative for comfort. Yet it’s precisely by making connections like these that a documentary can fire up your perceptions enough to burn through the cumulative effects of advertising. The title of “Take Your Pills” sounds innocent enough, until you realize it’s the society as a whole that’s issuing the directive: Take your pills…or else. Or else what? Or else you’ll be left out in the cold, with a mind that’s racing to play catch-up instead of one that’s been stimulated, or maybe just stoned, into perpetual overdrive.