Roughly one in three college seniors nationwide has taken illegally obtained prescription amphetamines. And they don't feel bad about it.
That's according to the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, a research institute at the University of Maryland that found that college students are taking these "study drugs" to help their concentration during cram sessions, essay sessions, and other academic pursuits.
In today's climate of economic uncertainty, students across the country are regularly reminded that exemplary academic performance is the only certain path to success. The Friday nights that were once dedicated to kegs and coeds are now replaced by GRE review sessions and resume workshops. Days spent juggling double majors, business clubs and honor societies are made significantly easier by study drugs, say students from schools across the state.
Prescription amphetamines are regularly used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a psychological condition characterized by a debilitating lack of concentration. These medications, often referred to as study drugs, are shown to increase concentration and academic success in all kinds of students.
"It helps me get through essays so easily that I just want to use it more and more," said Andy, a Connecticut college senior from Weston who does not have ADHD. He gets his study drugs from his housemate, who has a prescription. Students who spoke to the Advocate asked that their last names not be published with the article.
Two professors investigated the advent of illicit ADHD-medication as a "stigma-free part of the culture" at colleges. Alan D. DeSantis, of the University of Kentucky, and Audrey Curtis Hane, of Newman University, published their findings in 2010 in "'Adderall is Definitely Not a Drug': Justifications for the Illegal Use of ADHD Stimulants."
The two doctors found that 34 percent of the college-aged students they interviewed admitted to use of illicit prescription amphetamines. Distinct patterns of justification for use emerged during their research. Many students justified their use of study drugs by citing the lack of a "high" or physical side effects. They also noted that they were taking the drugs, which come endorsed by the medical establishment, for the right reasons.
These arguments became socially acceptable in the U.S. starting in the 1990s. According to the study, with every passing year, ADHD drugs like Adderall and Vyvanse seemed to have become more accepted as a legitimate way to achieve academic success by college-aged adults.
While most students interviewed for this article acknowledged that the purchase of prescription pills outside of a pharmacy constitutes a crime, a bubble society — that does not stigmatize the use of study drugs — has formed on college campuses nationwide. Public opinion does not condemn the use of Adderall for academic means, effectively legitimizing the black-market purchase of amphetamines.
One student willing to talk about illegal ADHD medication was Sasha, a 19-year-old University of Connecticut student who uses Adderall without a prescription while studying for tests. She's a sophomore from Fairfield County who gets her pills from neighbors in her residence hall.
She said that she doesn't consider being on Adderall to be cheating. "It just gives me energy and makes me more focused," she says. "I think that if I went to mental health services at UConn I could easily get them to prescribe me, too. Everyone has a mild form of ADD."
Sasha is typical of many college users who don't see a problem with taking the drug illegally.
James, a University of Connecticut junior, said ADHD medications go right along with his concept of the "American ideal." He said he has many times heard students say, "It makes me a better person," after they take Adderall. James believes that study drugs give him the personality of a "dedicated individual who soldiers on."
"You're doing this to become a better student," he says, "which gives you some ethical leeway. Anyone who does a lot of other drugs sees the negative side effects," whether they admit it or not, he said. "Study drugs don't have that negative effect."
Though the majority of students do not feel stigmatized for using Adderall illegally, some do have doubts about the practice.
Laura Steinmetz, a sophomore at Tufts University, has never used ADHD medication, but agrees there is no stigma associated with the widespread use of the drugs at her school. However, after some reflection, Steinmetz said she would consider the use of these medications to be cheating, adding, "It's comparable to using steroids for sports."
Outside of the academic repercussions, Dr. Caroline Easton, who founded and directed the Forensic Drug Diversion Clinic at Yale Medical School, worries that many students using these illicit amphetamines do not realize the dangers they can pose. She believes prescription amphetamines can act as a gateway drug to street drugs.
"Misusing stimulants that are not prescribed can lead to other illicit drug abuse," she said in a recent interview. "What happens when they can't get enough of the Adderall? They go to cocaine and crack. So what's next?"
And study drugs themselves can have the same negative effects on a college student's body as street drugs, Easton says. Most dangerously, they can exacerbate pre-existing heart conditions, which can even lead to death, she says.
These issues of academic cheating, health concerns, and addiction possibilities are known, but have yet to draw the condemnation of school officials across Connecticut. Adderall culture has silently grown, and most students don't fear investigation by the institutions put in place to protect their well-being.