Drugs authorities seize record quantities of modafinil. They should ask themselves why it’s so popular

Fake or stolen medicines worth nearly £16 million have been seized by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This is part of an Interpol initiative called Operation Pangea, involving 155 countries, which has produced a worldwide haul of drugs worth £52 million – the largest such seizure in history.

Significantly, 1,400 websites have been closed – though, as the Mail reports, criminals are increasingly using social media to sell their illegal wares. To quote Alastair Jeffrey, MHRA head of enforcement: ‘There is no doubt that social media provides fantastic span if you’re trying to sell a product, whether legitimately or illegitimately, and equally it provides a great deal of anonymity if you are doing something illegal.’

This isn’t, however, just a story about resourceful criminals: it’s about customer demand. These raids reveal the growing popularity of self-medication. Note that many of the drugs seized were ‘narcolepsy pills’ – that is, modafinil (or fake versions of it) which is used by students on campuses all over the world to help them concentrate.

The reason it’s described as a ‘narcolepsy pill’ is that, in Britain, that is all modafinil is licensed for. But its uses and usefulness are much wider, and American GPs have greater freedom to prescribe it for what it does best – that is, aid concentration and possibly boost IQ. Wall Street traders call it ‘brain Viagra’.

The MHRA deplores ‘the growing trend towards lifestyle medications and products that are unlicensed, falsified or controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971’. Fair enough – but at some stage it’s going to have to work out what to do about ‘smart drugs’ that may not be harmful. European and American armed forces don’t have a problem with it. As William Saletan writes in Slate:

The publicly reported studies have tested modafinil in Black Hawk helicopter pilots, F-117 fighter pilots, French paratroopers, and Canadian reservists, among others. They’ve simulated A-6 Intruder bombing missions, AWACS flights, and French Navy patrols. In nearly every trial, modafinil has extended the ability to function without sleep. And we’re already using it in the field. The United States has given modafinil to Air Force personnel since the 2003 Iraq invasion. By 2004, the British Ministry of Defence had bought 24,000 tablets. By 2007, France was routinely supplying it to fighter pilots.

Modafinil is also used as a recreational drug. Young people find its attention-focussing properties enjoyable, and don’t necessarily want to use it all up in the library. The case for making it illegal except for narcolepsy and military missions is difficult to defend and impossible to enforce in the long run. Whatever your views on the matter, Operation Pangea is not the end of the story.