The Spread of Study Drugs: Just How Scared Should We Be?


The idea that young people may experiment with drugs while at college is not new. For many students, college is the first time they are unleashed from the constraints of home life and can let loose away from inquisitive parents. The shy come out of their shell, the wild become wilder, and for thousands of students across the US, their liberation leads to unbridled alcohol abuse and hedonistic drug experimentation.

But these days, things are different. Recreational drug use is as common as ever, but the past decade has seen a staggering rise in the use and abuse of so-called ‘study drugs’. Study drugs are prescription drugs that increase mental focus and enhance productivity, and the most commonly abused are Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, all of which are commonly prescribed to treat ADHD.

What’s most shocking about this is its prevalence. Studies show 62 percent of students with legitimate prescriptions for Adderall or Ritalin are giving it to other students, and a further one-third of students have admitted to abusing stimulant prescription drugs at least once. Considering these are Schedule II substances with the potential for devastating side effects, just how scared for our students should we be?

A Growing Trend

What is most apparent from talking to students who admit to misusing study drugs is that there is no one ‘type’ of person who does this. It’s not just the wild students: it’s not just the risk takers or the frat boys or party girls; it’s conscientious, hard-working students. It’s no secret that levels of anxiety and stress have soared on US campuses recently, and the pressures of academic success are making students desperate.

“I first took Adderall in my first year. I was actually in the library at the time,” says Rob, a final year history student at UCLA who credits the drug with his good grades. “I’d spent hours trying to work on an essay but it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t get anything done. My friend asked if I wanted to try Adderall as it helps, and I was so frustrated I didn’t even hesitate. That was it: I was hooked.”

Rob is certainly not alone. These drugs can be so effective at enhancing productivity that going back to ‘sober studying’ can seem pointless. The fact is, study drugs seem to get the job done. Discounting the adverse side effects for a moment, the benefits include heightened alertness, focus and improvement in memorizing data that must be remembered days later — just what one would want from a study drug.

“Everyone is affected differently, but for me the results were incredible,” Rob says. “It took about 15 minutes to kick in, but when it did it was like having tunnel vision: I was 100% focused on my essay. You’re still totally lucid and aware of what’s going on, but you’re also kind of zoned out to it. You’re in your own little study bubble, and the best thing is you don’t want to leave. Studying becomes enjoyable. The feeling I got when I finished the best essay I ever wrote less than three hours later was so rewarding. Why stop?”

The dangers

“Why stop?” seems to be the thought in many students’ heads when it comes to their favorite study drug, but these stimulants are C-II – the most highly regulated prescription medications that have a strong potential for abuse and addiction. Side effects can include insomnia, irritability, psychosis, permanent tics, cardiomyopathy, hypertension, stroke, seizures, and they can even lead to abrupt cardiac death.

Aidah is a second year UCLA math major who no longer takes study drugs – though she says she almost “lived on them” in her first year. “When I started taking Adderall, I didn’t really have many negative side effects. I felt a little edgy and sweaty at times, but I also felt really energized. It enhanced all areas of my life – not just my studies but my personal life. It just seemed like a win-win situation… for a while.”

So how can a study drug also enhance your personal life? The answer is indirectly – and unhealthily. One of the side effects of these types of stimulants is a loss of appetite. Students usually take these drugs first thing, often on an empty stomach, and then study for hours without feeling the need to eat. Aidah would often still feel so energetic after studying that she’d immediately head to the gym for a grueling workout.

“I lost eight pounds in just three weeks,” Aidah admits. “The crazy thing is, I wasn’t even trying to lose weight. I just had no appetite, and then to add to that, I was doing so much more in a day than I usually would. I’d have more free time because my studying was so much more effective, so I would socialize more too and I’d often be out partying all night. You work hard, but you play even harder. It’s dangerous.

“Ultimately, I began to realize the dangers of what I was doing to my body on such a regular basis. One time my heart was going so fast and my palms were sweating to such a degree that the effect was exactly like being on molly – something I’ve only taken now and then and wouldn’t dream of doing regularly. But essentially, I was. When I began having serious problems with my stomach, I stopped there and then.”

The Root of the Problem

What’s most unsettling about the rise of study drugs is the casual basis on which they are taken. Aside from the brazen way prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are passed around campuses, many students are seeing this dependency as a convenient money-making scheme. Single pills that usually sell for a few dollars can be sold for up to $25 during midterm or finals, and students are increasing buying unverified drugs online; stimulants like Modafinil are regularly bought from websites in Singapore.

The problem with these drugs is that everyone’s brain chemistry is different. There are no medical checks when a friend passes over their prescription, no controls over what you’re sent when you purchase drugs online. People can, and people do, react to these drugs in very different ways. Even the students who extoll the benefits of these drugs are beginning to recognize the issues, as Rob himself acknowledges:

“I can see that it’s becoming a big problem. One of the most obvious problems, I think, is the fact that no one really sees them as drugs. We all call them ‘study aids’. They’re seen in a totally different light to drugs like cocaine or ecstasy, even though they have many of the same effects and are stimulants. People openly ask for them and sell them in library, and I know they’re prevalent in many high schools now too.”

So what can be done to prevent this alarming movement becoming even more rampant? Campuses like UCLA are trying to cap study drug abuse not only by continuing to highlight the dangers of these drugs, but by promoting healthier work habits and attempting to reduce stress levels. The pervasiveness of students abusing their prescriptions has led to cautionary posters in several colleges warning students about the felony charges and prison time they may face for their seemingly innocuous actions.

But the root of the problem is society, not students. As long as this country continues to overmedicate its citizens at such a disturbing rate, there can be no quick fix to this problem. The reliance on prescription drugs in the USA is an epidemic; by the time they reach high school, almost 20 percent of American males will be diagnosed with ADHD. Until there are major changes in the way we treat illness, countless prescriptions of ‘study drugs’ will continue to be dispensed – and students will continue to abuse them.