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‘Study drugs’ on the rise

A 24-year-old graduate student studying at Concordia University Wisconsin struggled with concentration issues due to PTSD. The student’s boyfriend suggested taking a pill prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The pill promised to help with focus. 

Sure enough, the pill delivered a newfound sense of motivation and energy. It enabled the student to tackle assignments and chores with ease, and it even created positive changes in the student’s social life.

Adderall is prescribed to treat ADHD, but has come to be known on college campuses as a “study drug.” The misuse of study drugs is on the rise among college students across the country. (Photo by Alex Baca/Kokopelli)

The pill the student was taking was a drug known as amphetamine/dextroamphetamine salts, more commonly referred to as Adderall. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant prescription medication commonly used to treat ADHD. It is also listed as a federally controlled substance due to its potential for abuse or dependence.  

Despite the potential danger, many college students across the country have turned to Adderall as a way to enhance their academic performance, stay awake longer and improve their ability to study and concentrate for extended periods of time.

“The effects of Adderall, however, are not all positive. While the drug can provide significant benefits in terms of improved focus, motivation and mood, it may also come with drawbacks including an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, as well as sleep disturbances.”

“When I take Adderall, I feel energetic and happy,” the student said, “which is nice because the majority of the time I am depressed and unmotivated to do even normal tasks like talking to people, doing chores or taking care of myself. Adderall makes me feel social, productive, and just overall happy to be alive and interact with others.”

The effects of Adderall, however, are not all positive. While the drug can provide significant benefits in terms of improved focus, motivation and mood, it may also come with drawbacks including an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, as well as sleep disturbances.

“The only negative effect that I have is not sleeping very well when I take it, but I would say that does not outweigh the positives because I already struggle with insomnia,” the student said. 

The potential dangers of the pill highlight the importance of consulting with a qualified health care professional before taking any controlled medication.

Niki Asgharzadeh, a clinical pharmacist at Raymond G. Murphy Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, is familiar with the issue of Adderall misuse among college students. Although she has not encountered any personal cases yet, she emphasized that pharmacies are actively addressing the problem.

A bar graph produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse compares the misuse of Adderall among college students versus non-students in 2018. (Image courtesy of NIDA)

“The pharmacy law has now changed controlled substances to strictly be electronically prescribed, meaning pharmacies no longer accept hard copy prescriptions for controlled substances such as Adderall,” Asgharzadeh said. “The purpose of this change was to stop drug diversion and misuse of these medications for those who don’t have an actual condition in which they need these medications.”

In addition to unknowingly exposing themselves to health risks by consuming the medication without a complete understanding of its potential side effects, legal troubles can also arise from the misuse of controlled substances like Adderall. Students may not know they could face serious legal consequences if they get caught consuming medications without a prescription. 

Asgharzadeh believes that students should have access to proper health care and accurate medical diagnoses if they are genuinely struggling with completing tasks and staying focused.

“It’s important for students to have the resources they need to be able to be successful,” Asgharzadeh said. “Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, most of the Adderall not obtained from official health care providers and pharmacies could be harmful to students as these drugs could be laced.” 

Last October, the FDA announced a shortage of Adderall in the United States, which has raised concerns about the potential risks of increased demand and limited supply. According to Asgharzadeh, there is concern about college students seeking unsafe alternative sources of the drug including counterfeit or laced versions of the medication.

According to Gabriella Rodriguez, 22, a pharmacy student and intern studying at the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy, Adderall misuse is prevalent on the UNM campus.

Rodriguez has noticed students misusing substances, including the “study drug.” Adderall misuse became even more apparent to her once she started pharmacy school.

“Referring to Adderall misuse now as a technician, there is [evidence] of misuse as we can see from the Adderall shortages,” Rodriguez said. “Here in Albuquerque, patients who actually take this medication to function on a daily basis are going without, and people who cannot get it are turning to alternative ways to obtain that drug.”

As a pharmacy student, Rodriguez has learned about substance misuse and the important role pharmacists play in addressing it.

“Pharmacies are definitely the liaison between the doctor and the patient, so that’s when they can play a huge role in [preventing] misuse and abuse of the drug,” Rodriguez said.

According to American Addiction Centers, the largest age range of individuals misusing Adderall without a prescription or medical need are young adults age 18 to 25, which aligns with the prime age range of college students. 

The issue of Adderall misuse without a prescription or medical necessity also exists among students at NMSU. Some students have reported obtaining the medication without a prescription. A 19-year-old freshman marketing student, who requested anonymity, shared his experience obtaining Adderall on NMSU’s main campus.

“I have a friend on campus who has an Adderall prescription, and I get it from them,” he said. “I definitely think there is a high demand for students trying to get Adderall without a prescription.”

He attributes this trend to the positive effects that Adderall has on students, like helping them cope with study-related struggles and limited time.

“[Adderall] is pretty crazy because it can change your behavioral patterns, depending on how much you take,” he said. “I ended up literally detail-cleaning the entirety of me and my roommates’ dorm until it was spotless. The Adderall just took over.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, college students tend to misuse Adderall more frequently compared to their non-college peers. Health care professionals warn against the misuse of Adderall for study purposes because of its risks and potential adverse effects, and they are actively addressing the concern.

Learn more about Adderall addiction online. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance or alcohol abuse, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline, use the online treatment locator, or call 1-800-662-help (4357). 

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