Study drugs often used without prescriptions

Graphic by Ali Fishman










Back-to-back final exams, multiple research papers and the last few weeks of senior year in high school.

These were the circumstances that led Danielle, who is currently a UM senior majoring in political science, to try Adderall illegally for the first time. [The names of all students have been changed to protect their identity.]

Adderall is a prescription stimulant that is typically used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized by a difficulty in focusing on a task or general concentration, and Adderall is used to treat these symptoms. It is one of the several medications that can be used to treat the condition.

“In its proper use, it’s pretty safe and effective for people with ADHD,” said Dr. Lourdes Illa, a psychiatrist at the Miller School of Medicine who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Many students, however, are illegally obtaining the drug to help them focus, especially with finals less than a month away.

“Adderall does not make a person more intelligent or creative by any means, but it can help focus attention on certain tasks,” said Jayanta Hegde, a clinical psychologist at the UM Counseling Center.

According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 6 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were using prescription drugs, which includes Adderall, for nonmedical reasons. This is nearly double the number of students using Adderall in 2006 and 2007. Also, 90 percent of college students who used Adderall for non-medical reasons were more likely to be heavy alcohol drinkers and more likely to binge drink.

Study drugs

In Danielle’s high school, the drug was a popular option for stressed-out seniors.

“I was going crazy,” she said. “When you’re a senior in high school, 15 pages is like, what the hell?”

She obtained the drug from a classmate for about $4. The price is usually based on the dosage.

“It was like me times three,” Danielle said. “Literally, I felt like I would go into these tests and write 10 pages no problem.”

She has since used Adderall twice more, during her freshman and sophomore years in college, to improve her studying.

Joe, a senior, uses Adderall to deal with smaller assignments. But, he uses Vyvanse, a stronger prescription stimulant, if he has an important exam or multiple exams in one week.

“When I’m on a study drug, it keeps me focused and all I want to do is schoolwork,” he said. “Even if I finish the work I wanted to get done, the help keeps me going and allows me to get ahead on other schoolwork.”

Risks and side effects

Despite its alleged benefits, there are dangers to taking Adderall for non-medical reasons.

According to Illa, the risks of taking Adderall without consulting a doctor run the gamut from the known side effects of the drug, such as difficulty sleep and loss of appetite, to dependency and psychotic episodes.

These risks occur because those who take the drug illegally are unaware of their medical history or the appropriate dosage for their needs, Illa said.

Though these complications can also happen when Adderall is prescribed, a physician can help manage them.

“It’s always dangerous to take medication without speaking with a physician,” said Illa, who encourages all students who believe they may have ADHD to visit a psychiatrist.

While on Adderall, Danielle usually ate and slept less than normal.

“But once it wore off, it was like all my hunger that was backed up came out at once,” she said.

However, she is not worried about the side effects or becoming addicted because of how sparingly she uses it.

“I’ve done research on it,” she said. “It’s not a major concern for me.”

Thomas, a senior, took Adderall to help him study but found out that the drug didn’t work for him.

“I had tremors and couldn’t focus of my work,” he said. “I actually ended up downloading tons of music and cleaned my house and organized everything really well. But in terms of studying, I couldn’t at all.”

Ethical issues

At the UM Counseling Center, students who admit to using Adderall illegally are educated about the risks and then encouraged to see a psychiatrist.

However, psychiatrists at the Counseling Center do not prescribe Adderall to students “as a matter of policy.”

“It can be a time-consuming process to thoroughly assess for genuine attention deficit problems, and the potential for abuse is high,” Hegde said.

For Hegde, the illegal use of Adderall raises a philosophical question.

“The use of Adderall on college campuses raises a philosophical controversy about whether we should enhance ourselves cognitively and physically with drugs, even if we don’t have a genuine problem or deficit, and even if there are risks involved in doing so,” he said.

Junior Clayton Wandishin, a psychology major, does not use Adderall because he views it as cheating.

“I don’t take prescription drugs to study because it’s wrong and flat out cheating,” he said. “My classes are tough enough without some people popping pills and screwing up the curve for those of us who choose not to.”

Danielle said she does feel that using Adderall gives her “an unfair advantage,” but that she doesn’t feel guilty about her actions.

“I don’t feel bad about it anymore,” she said. “I was under the predicament that I was taking a final for a class in which I had flunked the midterm. I had to get an A.”


Robert Pursell contributed to this report.