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Hot on Campus | August 28, 2012

Anything to get ahead

Adderall

Users praise results of 'Ivy League Crack' while critics call it cheating

©iStockPhoto/101dalmatians

During her freshman year at Westmont College, in Santa Barbara, Calif., Emily Auman found herself writing a 30-page paper and three five-page essays, while she prepared for a dance show and an art show, all in the same week. To get her work done, Auman needed to pull three all-nighters in a row.

Fearing she would never make it on her own, Auman popped three little blue pills--one a night--and rode an energy high for 72 hours.

"It was great," said Auman, a history major. "I could actually focus, and I could just sit down and type and type and type. I thought it was fantastic. To keep up, it seemed like the only thing that would really help."

Adderall, Auman's study helper, is a psychostimulant designed to treat symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. But on high school and college campuses, the drug has become known as the "study pill" or the "smart pill," for its ability to keep even the most exhausted and easily distracted student up all night studying or writing papers. Although researchers claim the drug doesn't really provide the increased mental performance students think it does, use on college campuses continues to rise.

As Adderall abuse becomes more common, fewer students see it as something illegal, immoral or dishonest. But students who don't use the drug say taking Adderall without a prescription amounts to cheating and has the potential to make succeeding in college impossible without it.

Thirty percent of all college students have used Adderall or similar drugs, like Ritalin, to help them focus and study, according to Alan DeSantis, a professor at the University of Kentucky who tracks the use of study drugs on college campuses. DeSantis's research also showed that Adderall use increased with upperclassmen, who usually carry heavier workloads. According to the study, 50 percent of juniors and seniors admitted to using the drug, and illegal Adderall use was highest among fraternity and sorority members--80 percent admitted taking it at least once.

Because Adderall is one of the most common drugs used to treat ADHD, it is easy for college students to get. Many have younger siblings or friends with prescriptions for the drug. Dealers on campus are easy to find. They sell the pills for as low as $5, depending on supply levels and the time of year. During finals, the pills are in high demand and can go for as much as $20 each.

In a study conducted by the University of Rhode Island, researchers asked 350 college students about their experience with non-prescribed stimulants such as Adderall. The findings revealed that while only about 7 percent admitted to using a stimulant drug in the previous 30 days, 60 percent reported knowing students who had misused the drugs. Another 50 percent described prescription stimulants as easy to get on their campus.

Although Adderall abuse varies by campus, doctors researching the trend say educators need to take the problem more seriously. In an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Daniel Rosenfield, Paul C. H├ębert, and Matthew B. Stanbrook describe college campuses as "ground zero" for grade-boosting stimulant abuse: "Students use stimulants for a perceived boost to academic performance through enhanced attention and alertness. However, these benefits are not reality-based but rather a pervasive myth. The vast majority of the evidence shows no cognitive improvements with the use of stimulants when compared with placebo in healthy individuals."

Despite Adderall's reputation for boosting students' performance, the drug doesn't actually have any effect on intelligence levels. And students are as uninformed about the drug's dangerous drawbacks as they are about its supposedly positive effects, researchers say.

But the drug does improve concentration and allow students to go without sleep for days at a time, enabling them to get more work done. And the results make Adderall hard to resist.

Emily Auman's sister, Abby, a 2011 graduate of Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC, estimates everyone at her school knew about the drug and most students had probably tried it at least once. Her own roommate was a dealer on Appalachian State's campus. Adderall is making the already competitive world of higher education almost impossible to natigate without "help," Abby Auman said.

"What was frustrating was that the Adderall people were doing a lot of good work and setting the bar so high," she said. "If you use it, you will get ahead. I felt like I had to choose between bad grades and Adderall."

In chat room discussions and media interviews, students lament the pressures of college life while praising what they call "Ivy League Crack" because with it they can focus on homework and studying, or on partying, harder and longer. Online posts praising Adderall often include the phrase "Crack is for losers, Adderall is for winners." For the students who use it, the drug's results outweigh its drawbacks and quiet any qualms they might have about doing something that could be perceived as cheating. And the high-achieving college students who use it certainly don't see themselves as drug addicts.

"These aren't the slackers that use [Adderall], these are smart kids who know it's dangerous and they just think it's worth the risk," Abby Auman said.

Some experts even espouse brain enhancement drugs, proclaiming that Adderall and other study drugs should be legal for use in academia and the working world. In the journal Nature, seven prominent ethicists and neuroscientists recently published a paper titled, "Towards a responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy."

"Mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs," the authors wrote. "Laws should be adjusted to avoid making felons out of those who seek to use safe cognitive enhancements."

But even supporters of brain stimulants admit the dangers of misusing Adderall. The FDA classifies the drug as a Class II substance, comparable to cocaine and methamphetamines. The risk of unintended side effects is both high and consequential, the authors of the journal Nature piece admit.

Although students take the drug to help them concentrate, it doesn't have the same effect on everyone. Numerous students say Adderall "zaps" their creativity. Others say it takes them days to recover from the withdrawal and subsequent crash after using. Some even said it made them feel like zombies.

College students and graduates also worry about the long-term effects of Adderall abuse. If academia eventually accepts such stimulants, or if Adderall use without a prescription becomes legal, students who don't want to use it will be at a disadvantage. And future generations will have to continue using mental stimulants just to keep up with their predecessors.

"I hate what it's doing in colleges," Emily Auman said. "I hate that it's creating a minimal level of work that college students have to keep up with and still try to have a college experience."

After trying the drug her freshman year, Auman decided that continuing to use Adderall was wrong, partly because of how she felt when the drug wore off. She also didn't want to become dependent on a drug in order to do well in school.

"You either sacrifice everything that is college or you use," she said. "We are creating a cycle that our kids will have to work to get out of."

Whitney Davis was a WORLD on Campus summer intern. This story is part of a series on Adderall abuse. Read the other stories: Addicted to success, Playing with fire and Slow to respond