We’re all drug users. Whether it's booze, cigarettes, and weed or painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants, experiencing altered states has been a part of the human experience for millennia. The only difference between our forefathers and today is that we have a better understanding of the science behind getting high.
But what does the future hold for this ancient pastime? Will we enter an age where drugs disappear, a world where everyone opts for a life of clean living?
No. Obviously not. That would be awful.
Not only will drug use grow over the coming decades, the drugs that give the best highs have yet to be invented. In this chapter of our Future of Crime series, we explore the demand for and the future of illicit drugs.
Trends that will fuel recreational drug use between 2020-2040
When it comes to recreational drugs, a number of trends will work together to increase their use among the public. But the three trends that will have the biggest impact involve access to drugs, the disposable income available to buy drugs, and the general demand for drugs.
When it comes to access, the growth of online black markets has dramatically improved the ability of individual drug users (casual and addicts) to purchase drugs safely and discreetly. This topic was already discussed in chapter two of this series, but to summarize: websites like the Silkroad and its successors offer users an Amazon-like shopping experience for tens of thousands of drug listings. These online black markets aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and their popularity is set to grow as police get better at shutting down traditional drug pushing rings.
This newfound ease of access will also be fuelled by a future increase in disposable income among the general public. This may sound crazy today, but consider this example. First discussed in chapter two of our Future of Transportation series, the average ownership cost of a US passenger vehicle is nearly $9,000 annually. According to Proforged CEO Zack Kanter, "It's already more economical to use a ridesharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year." The future release of all-electric, self-driving taxi and ridesharing services will mean many urbanists will no longer need to purchase a vehicle, let alone the monthly insurance, maintenance, and parking costs. For many, this can add up to a savings of between $3,000 to $7,000 annually.
And that's just transportation. A variety of tech and science breakthroughs (especially the ones related to automation) will have similar deflationary effects on everything from food, to healthcare, to retail goods and much more. The money saved from each of these living costs can be diverted to a range of other personal uses, and for some, this will include drugs.
Trends that will fuel illegal pharmaceutical use between 2020-2040
Of course, recreational drugs aren’t the only drugs people abuse. Many argue that today’s generation is the most heavily medicated in history. Part of the reason why is the growth of drug advertising over the last two decades that encourages patients to consume more pharmaceuticals than they would have otherwise a few decades earlier. Another reason is the development of a range of new drugs that can treat far more maladies than was possible in the past. Thanks to these two factors, global pharmaceutical sales is well over one trillion dollars US and growing at five to seven percent annually.
And yet, for all this growth, Big Pharma is struggling. As discussed in chapter two of our Future of Health series, while scientists have deciphered the molecular makeup of about 4,000 diseases, we only have treatments for about 250 of them. The reason is due to an observation called Eroom's Law (‘Moore' backwards) where the number of drugs approved per billion in R&D dollars halves every nine years, adjusted for inflation. Some blame this crippling decline in pharmaceutical productivity on how drugs are funded, others blame an overly stifling patent system, the excessive costs of testing, the years needed for regulatory approval—all these factors play a part in this broken model.
For the general public, this decreasing productivity and the increased cost of R&D ends up raising the price of pharmaceuticals, and the greater the annual price hikes, the more people will turn to dealers and online black markets to purchase the drugs they need to stay alive.
Another key factor to keep in mind is that throughout the Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia, the population of senior citizens is forecasted to grow dramatically over the coming two decades. And for seniors, their healthcare costs tend to grow dramatically the deeper they travel through their twilight years. If these seniors don’t properly save for their retirement, then the cost of future pharmaceuticals may force them, and the children they depend on, to purchase drugs off the black market.
Another point that has broad implications for the public’s use of both recreational and pharmaceutical drugs is the increasing trend towards deregulation.
As explored in chapter three of our Future of Law series, the 1980s saw the beginnings of the "war on drugs" that came with it harsh sentencing policies, especially mandatory prison time. The direct result of these policies was an explosion in the US prison population from under 300,000 in 1970 (roughly 100 inmates per 100,000) to 1.5 million by 2010 (over 700 inmates per 100,000) and four million parolees. These numbers don't even account for the millions incarcerated or killed in South American nations due to US influence on their drug enforcement policies.
And yet some would argue the true cost of all these harsh drug policies was a lost generation and a black mark on society's moral compass. Keep in mind that the vast majority of those stuffed into prisons were addicts and low-level drug peddlers, not drug kingpins. Moreover, most of these offenders came from poorer neighborhoods, thereby adding racial discrimination and class warfare undertones to the already controversial application of incarceration. These social justice issues are contributing to the generational shift away from blind support for criminalizing addiction and towards the funding for counseling and treatment centers that have proven to be more effective.
While no politician wants to look weak on crime, this gradual shift in public opinion will ultimately see the decriminalization and regulation of marijuana in most developed countries by the late 2020s. This deregulation will normalize marijuana use among the general public, similar to the end of prohibition, which will lead to the decriminalization of even more drugs as time goes by. While this won’t necessarily lead to a dramatic upsurge in drug use, there will most definitely be a noticeable bump in use among the wider public.
Future drugs and future highs
Now comes the part of this chapter that encouraged most of you to read (or skip) through all the context above: future drugs that will give the future you your future highs!
By the late 2020s and early 2030s, advances in recent breakthroughs such as CRISPR (explained in chapter three of our Future of Health series) will enable laboratory scientists and garage scientists to produce a range genetically engineered plants and chemicals with psychoactive properties. These drugs can be engineered to be safer, as well as more potent than what's on the market today. These drugs can further be engineered to have extremely specific styles of highs, and they can even be engineered to the unique physiology or DNA of the user (the particularly rich user to be more exact).
But by the 2040s, chemical-based highs will become entirely obsolete.
Keep in mind that all recreational drugs do is activate or inhibit the release of certain chemicals inside your brain. This effect can easily be simulated by brain implants. And thanks to the emerging field of Brain-Computer Interface (explained in chapter three of our Future of Computers series), this future isn’t as far off as you’d think. Cochlear implants have been used for years as a partial-to-full cure for deafness, while deep brain stimulation implants have been used to treat epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
Over time, we'll have BCI brain implants that can manipulate your mood—great for people suffering from chronic depression, and equally great for drug users interested in swiping an app on their phone to activate a 15-minute euphoric feeling of love or happiness. Or how about turning on an app that gives you an instant organism. Or maybe even an app that messes with your visual perception, kind of like Snapchat's face filters minus the phone. Better yet, these digital highs can be programmed to always give you a premium high, while also ensuring you never overdose.
All-in-all, the pop culture or counterculture craze of the 2040s will be fueled by carefully designed, digital, psychoactive apps. And that's why tomorrow's drug lords won't come from Colombia or Mexico, they'll come from Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, on the pharmaceutical side, medical labs will continue to come out with new forms of painkillers and sedatives that will likely be abused by those suffering from chronic conditions. Likewise, privately funded medical labs will continue to produce a slew of new performance-enhancing drugs that will improve physical traits such as strength, speed, endurance, recovery time, and most important, do so all while being increasingly difficult to detect by anti-doping agencies—you can guess the likely clientele these drugs will attract.
Then comes my personal favorite, nootropics, a field that will seep into the mainstream by the mid-2020s. Whether you prefer a simple nootropic stack like caffeine and L-theanine (my fav) or something more advanced like the piracetam and choline combo, or prescription drugs like Modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin, ever more advanced chemicals will emerge on the market promising enhanced focus, reaction time, memory retention, and creativity. Of course, if we're already talking about brain implants, then the future union of our brains with the Internet will make all these chemical enhancers obsolete as well … but that's a topic for another series.
On the whole, if this chapter teaches you anything, it’s that the future will most definitely not kill your high. If you’re into altered states, the drug options you’ll have available to you over the coming decades will be cheaper, better, safer, more plentiful, and more easily accessible than at any time in human history.