Students on Speed

Spectrum survey finds Adderall abuse on campus

On March 29, 2011

  • An on-campus survey has revealed that many students at UB are abusing the prescription drug Adderall. Courtesy of flickr user ChelseaM

Note: Due to the illegality of using and selling prescription medications for non-medically intended use, many of the sources are referred to by their first names or pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

Misusing prescription amphetamine medications such as Adderall is a widespread problem at UB, a survey reveals, with nearly one-third of UB students stating that they have used the drug non-medically. Additionally, over 75 percent of students surveyed have heard of students obtaining and using ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) medications for other than their intended uses.

Adderall was originally marketed as Obetrol in the 1960s as a weight-loss drug. In the last 25 years, the drug has been re-branded in order to treat ADHD and narcolepsy in adults and children. More recently, Adderall has become a prevalent substance on college campuses as a study drug to increase productivity.

While this stimulant is usually used to deliver a calming effect for those with ADHD, when people who do not need the drug consume it, it produces an opposite effect.

Students taking Adderall

For those who take Adderall and do not have ADHD, the drug acts as a powerful stimulant that increases concentration, energy and focus.

Academic pressures and the fast pace of college life are driving some students to seek alternative ways to boost their performance and give them a competitive edge.

"I take Adderall when I need to pull all-nighters," said Molly, a senior business major. "It keeps me awake and it keeps me focused on studying rather than on Facebook or other distractions."

In 2009, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that full-time college students aged 18 to 22 are twice as likely as their counterparts who were not in school to have used Adderall non-medically in 2008.

The majority of students surveyed indicated that the primary use of Adderall they were aware of or had taken part in was as a study aid. Other uses included to promote weight loss and as a recreational "party" drug.

"I was prescribed Adderall a few years ago to help me focus during my studies," said Kelsey, a junior undeclared major. "I never finish my whole prescription, so I always give pills to my friends who need help studying, too."

Nearly 90 percent of UB students surveyed who had confessed to non-medical Adderall use indicated that they received pills through a friend with a prescription or someone who was known to sell Adderall. Other students stated that they obtained Adderall through a family member with a prescription.

"I am like the doctor of Greek Life," said John, a senior political science major and fraternity member. "Whenever anyone needs to buy Adderall, they come to me, especially during finals weeks."

Dangers of the drug

Physicians have been expressing concern about the ease at which students gain access to drugs, and it is not necessarily through prescriptions, according to Rita Watson, a columnist for The Providence Journal and former director of education and policy at Yale's Substance Abuse Treatment Unit.

"People often keep drugs in their medicine cabinets that they no longer need, and it is an invitation to others to help themselves," Watson said.

Unlawful possession of prescription medication is a crime under Section 220 of the New York State Penal Code. Adderall is considered a stimulant drug (it contains amphetamine), which is a controlled substance under this section of the Penal Law. While possession could range from misdemeanor to felony level, unlawful sale of the drug is a felony.

University Rules & Regulations also govern this situation, as university rules define "clear and present danger" to include the "sale/possession of drugs:"

"Students selling prescription medication are likely to face criminal charges," said Melinda Saran, vice dean for student services at the UB Law School. "Students possessing small amounts of medication are probably more likely to have university-based discipline, including referrals to drug treatment programs."

Nonmedical use of Adderall is of particular interest to policymakers because, as an amphetamine, Adderall is among the group of legally approved drugs classified as having the highest potential for dependence or abuse.

Saran stated that most students see Adderall as a "makes you smart" drug, because, like all other ADHD and ADD prescription drugs, it is a central nervous system stimulant. It allows users' brains to concentrate more efficiently because it increases the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

However, the list of side effects is long and can include insomnia, loss of appetite, and sometimes symptoms obsessive-compulsive disorder. Adderall can also cause a dangerous increase in heart rate.

"Although [Adderall] is generally safe when taken as directed for a true medical condition, it is a potent medication with many side effects," said Richard D. Blondell, MD, director of addictions research at UB. "The biggest problem [for those not prescribed to it] is addiction with long-term effects similar to cocaine and crystal meth. Sudden death has also been reported with abuse."

Adderall and other drugs

Mixing Adderall and alcohol has become a growing trend, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which reported that nearly 90 percent of full-time college students who used Adderall non-medically in 2008 were binge alcohol users in the month preceding the survey, and more than half were heavy alcohol users.

"I like to take Adderall when I am drinking," said Brian, a sophomore exercise science major. "I can drink more and party longer."

High rates of binge and heavy alcohol use among full-time college students who use Adderall non-medically are a cause for concern because of the well-documented associations between excessive drinking among college students and the adverse consequences for students' physical and mental health, safety, and environment.

Since Adderall is an amphetamine-based stimulant, it may override the effects of alcohol, which may lead some to over-drink. This could easily result in alcohol poisoning.

Additionally, snorting Adderall may result in dangerous respiratory complications, cardiac arrhythmias, and paranoid or psychotic reactions.

Every student surveyed at UB who had reported non-medical Adderall use also reported recreational alcohol use. They were also more likely to use marijuana, cocaine, cigarettes, and other prescription pills.

Poly-drug use, or drug synergy, is extremely dangerous. Cocaine and stimulants taken simultaneously increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

In order to respond to the increasing misuse of Adderall, many websites have emerged to expose the potential dangers of doing so. Wendy Bailey, a University of California, Santa Barbara graduate who studied pre-med, created one such website,, with that aim.

"Since many people are at college to have a good time, they compensate for their lack of organization, planning, and diligence by using Adderall," Bailey said. "For some reason, people think Adderall is safer than street drugs because it is a prescription drug, and this shows a severe lack of cognitive effort and misunderstanding of what a drug is. Many controlled substances are very dangerous."

While Adderall potentially has severe side effects for both prescribers and non-prescribers of the drug, those who are taking it without a doctor's supervision are more likely to not be pulled off the drug in time, or to recognize the serious side effects, according to Bailey.

In a society where many solutions come in the form of a pill, it is not surprising that an increasing number of college students graciously welcome the energetic and academic boost Adderall provides them. However, the well-investigated consequences of doing so should steer some students away from this dangerous "quick fix."

"The people who abuse amphetamines tend to go down quickly," Blondell said. "Friends of these people can intervene in these situations. The actions of friends can potentially save a life; as the saying from the 1960s goes, ‘speed kills.'"


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