It’s 3 a.m.
Five pages down, two to go.
Staring at the blinking cursor with glazed eyes, you realize that the effects of your 10 p.m. coffee run are wearing off and you really don’t have much else to say about Orientalism in 19th century French artwork. If only you’d spent the past five hours diligently working, instead of checking Facebook every four minutes. If only there were some sort of pill you could take to make yourself sit down and focus like you know you should but just can’t seem to actually do.
For an increasing number of college students, there is such a pill. It’s called Adderall.
Adderall, a brand of amphetamine-dextroamphetamine, is a stimulant that’s generally prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But on college campuses everywhere, students without prescriptions use it as a study drug to increase productivity and focus. A 2005 study from the University of Maryland showed that Adderall is the third most accessible drug on campus, right after alcohol and marijuana.
We’ve grown up in a world where the solution to most problems comes in capsule form. Add the pressures of college life, and a quick fix is more precious than ever. You pop a couple Advil to make it through your morning lecture after a night out, or swallow a few Dayquil with your coffee to fight the cold that inevitably hits during finals week. Adderall, some believe, is the magic cure to one college ailment that’s arguably more prevalent than hangovers or the common cold: procrastination.
Although recreational Adderall use has been around since the drug debuted in the late 90s, research shows that the numbers are steadily on the rise. A 2009 study surveyed more than 3,400 undergraduates and found that 5.4% had used ADHD medication recreationally within 6 months. But anecdotal evidence suggests an even higher number – most students interviewed said they guessed that about a quarter of students on their campus had at least experimented with the drug. More recently, Adderall has been popping up in the news in a new context: as a party drug, combined with alcohol to help students drink more and party longer. But for the most part, Adderall and other stimulants are used for studying, not partying.
So why is this drug gaining so much popularity? Are there any real risks of using Adderall without a prescription? And if so many college students rely on it to get through finals week…what’s the big deal?
What it feels like
Adderall works by increasing the amount of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that control your ability to focus and pay attention. “In patients with ADHD there is an imbalance of neurotransmitters,” says Sarah Smith, PharmD, a community pharmacy resident at Kerr Health in North Carolina. So for those correctly prescribed to the drug, it brings these chemicals up to normal levels. For those without ADHD, it brings an extremely heightened sense of focus and concentration.
Students describe the sensation as a kind of tunnel vision, where no distractions get in the way of you and your goal. “It definitely helps me concentrate and completely eliminates useless procrastinating like Facebook and other stupid sites on the Internet,” says Sarah*, a senior at Bowdoin College. Greg*, a junior at Amherst, says he feels genuinely more interested in the material while studying on Adderall. “I get so wrapped up in whatever I’m studying that hours go by and it feels like nothing,” he says. “It’s like I can understand everything on this deeper level.”
But a common drawback to such intense focus is a loss of creativity. “It basically makes you feel like you are wasting time and anxious if you are not doing work, so I tend to be short with people in conversations and it makes me kind of emotionless,” says Sarah. “I find it's sometimes hard to be creative on Adderall, so it’s usually better to study with than write papers.”
Why do it?
For those who use it, a major appeal is the drug’s widespread availability. “It is extremely easy to get and fairly cheap to purchase,” says Sarah. Most students get it for free or buy it for around $5 a pill from friends who have prescriptions. But what’s interesting is that Adderall doesn’t come with the stigma attached to illegal drug use. Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine – all these drugs are used in a social context to get high. Even frequently abused legal substances like cough syrup or Valium, when used recreationally, serve the purpose of delivering a high.
Adderall, the study drug, is one substance that seems to cross boundaries that other drugs don’t. Its use isn’t limited to the underachievers and the chronic procrastinators. Maybe you’re stressed because your pre-med classes, part-time internship and job as head of your school’s Dance Marathon leave you with little time to breathe, much less do your homework. Or maybe you just couldn’t start that five-page paper until the night before because you never miss half-off martini night at your favorite bar. Either way, a drug that enhances productivity holds a lot of appeal. Some use the drug to keep up with schoolwork while maintaining a social life, but others use it with the goal of getting ahead. With college competition becoming increasingly cutthroat and the job market stagnating, more and more students feel like they need to do whatever they can to get an edge.
But does it really help? Despite its GPA-polishing reputation, the answer isn’t clear. According to findings from a 2005 study, recreational Adderall users are most likely to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or lower. “I’ll get way too focused on other things sometimes,” says Greg. “I have to go to the library to work because if I’m in my dorm I’ll probably spend like four hours cleaning my room instead of studying.”
Lauren*, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, says she tried Adderall once during her freshman year when she had two exams the next day. “Maybe I took it at the wrong time or something, but it didn’t help me learn anything,” she says. “I didn’t do well on either of my exams.” Even with a heavy course load of business classes, she doesn’t plan on trying again. “There’s no reason to,” she says. “It didn’t help me much and it’s just kind of illegal.”
The ethical question
But unlike Lauren, most students don’t realize the potential consequences of illegally using prescription drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies Adderall as a Schedule II controlled substance – the same legal category as cocaine and heroin. The minimum federal sentence for first-time possession of between five and 49 grams is five years.
Despite these legal risks, the illegality of sharing and buying prescription drugs doesn’t seem to bother most students. What causes many to stay away from stimulants has more to do with ethics than law. If using drugs to enhance your athletic ability is unethical (not to mention illegal), then is it ethical to use drugs to enhance your mental abilities? Some students feel strongly that using Adderall is equivalent to mental steroids. “I have friends who refuse to touch it because they say they would feel like it was cheating,” says Greg. “Like it’s an unfair advantage or something like that.”
But for many students, it’s no less ethical than an extra cup of coffee to keep you awake. “It's basically efficiency in a pill,” says Sarah. “I don't consider it cheating because it doesn't make you smarter, it just makes you get your work done.”
Most students shrug off any potential health risks of Adderall with an “everyone does it, so it can’t be that bad” mentality. Among those who use the drug, the most common mindset seems to be: it’s legal, FDA-approved, and my best friend has been taking it since elementary school…how could it be that dangerous?
But common sense will tell you that any prescription drug has its risks, especially when self-medicating without a doctor’s consent. “Taking Adderall without a prescription and thus without medical supervision is very dangerous,” says Smith. Adderall is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular problems, so Smith says the drug isn’t recommended for anyone with heart problems, high blood pressure or a history of seizures, among other conditions. For the majority of people, Adderall in small doses will only result in minor side effects such as shakiness and loss of appetite. But without a doctor’s oversight, it’s difficult to know your personal health risks – which means you won’t know if you’re putting yourself in serious danger.
Adderall also has the potential to be addictive for many people. “It has a high potential for drug dependency to occur in anyone taking the medicine,” Smith says. “Adderall is not recommended for use in individuals with a history of drug abuse.”
Adding to the risk factor is the fact that the amount to overdose can vary considerably. On rare occasions, Smith says a dose of as little as 2 mg can produce severe reactions. Symptoms of overdose include aggressive behavior, uncontrolled shaking, dizziness, vomiting and hallucination.
So is it worth it? Despite the risks to both health and criminal record, not to mention the ethical debate, the answer for a large number of college students appears to be “yes.” Adderall culture exists, and for now, students don’t seem too worried. For Greg, experimenting with Adderall is as much a part of the stereotypical college culture as is writing papers at 3 a.m. “I just don’t see it as a big deal in the long run,” he says. “There’s a lot to deal with in college, and you just have to do what you can to do your best.”
Sarah*, a senior at Bowdoin College
Lauren*, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill
Greg*, a junior at Amherst
Other students at colleges across the country