Administrators fear rise of ‘study drugs’

Her hands never stop moving.

She fidgeted – toying with her hair, quickly weaving it around her fingers and twisting it behind her ear.

The junior treats her attention deficit disorder with Adderall, a drug that keeps her mind focused and her hands from darting for something to play with.

Stimulant medications prescribed to treat ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – such as Adderall, Ritalin, Focalin, Vyvanse and Concerta – improve concentration and alertness.

“Adderall makes us normal people,” the junior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “I couldn’t live without this.”

With 11 recorded cases in the 2009 to 2010 academic year and nine last year, prescription drug abuse has been an upward trend on campus since 2008, Assistant Dean of Students Tara Pereira said.

Just three violations have been recorded so far this year, but Pereira said the identified cases vastly underestimate actual abuse on campus.

The same effects that allow the drugs to treat ADD and ADHD have led to their nationwide abuse as study drugs – a growing concern of University officials who don’t know how to root out perpetrators or rein in the mounting problem.

Fear campaigns about the risks of abusing stimulant drugs have not been effective, so finding a successful way to deter abuse is a top priority, Pereira said.

Never surprised

Pereira, who oversees the University’s behavioral and substance abuse offices, said the medications are increasingly abused on college campuses.

Students without a judicial record who are found to be in possession of drugs face loss of housing, drug education classes, an addiction assessment and a fine.

The average sanction for distribution is a year-long suspension. Pereira said at least one student had been suspended for selling Adderall in recent years.

Pereira said non-medical offenders are difficult to profile because they span class years and campus demographics.

Cases of University-identified Adderall abuse are almost always linked to investigations spurred by the smell of marijuana, of which there are about 100 per year.

“I’m never surprised now when we find pills,” she said. “It is something that we really do need to tackle more and put more resources behind as far as prevention and education.”

The students with prescriptions said they rarely thought of the disciplinary consequences of sharing their medications.

“If you’re asking us to take this every day to make us normal human beings, how can we possibly think this is a bad drug?” the female junior asked.

“Smart doping”

These medications improve alertness, concentration and attention span for those with ADD and ADHD, according to a leader at a national pharmaceutical organization.

With months of sustained medical use, performance can gradually improve because the drugs “tamper down” excess hyperactivity in the brain, psychiatrist and leader of the Medco Neuroscience Therapeutic Resource Center David Muzina said.

Abuse of the drugs – “smart doping” – is increasingly common in collegiate environments, Muzina agreed.

ADHD awareness among doctors and the public has led to more diagnoses and therefore more drugs on the market “that can be sold or shared in potentially inappropriate ways,” Muzina said.

Non-medical users have overall lower grade point averages, skip class more often and are more likely to have alcohol and other drug dependencies, he added.

The male junior said he smokes marijuana almost every day to fight the insomnia and depression that come with Adderall crashes.

Many students believe intermittent use of stimulants is harmless, but the drugs are associated with serious risks “even in a controlled medical environment with close supervision,” Muzina said.

The slew of stimulant drugs’ side effects include increased blood pressure and heart rate, arrhythmias, insomnia, loss of appetite, dizziness, irritability and stomachaches.

A male junior said the drug sparked such a strong aversion to food that he feels like eating at all is “forced feeding” – a price he grudgingly pays to keep his mind from roaming.

“If I didn’t have to take this, I wouldn’t. I would do anything to not to have to deal with this in my life,” the female junior, who has experienced clinical depression in response to medication, said.

Adderall increases dopamine levels in the brain, which stimulates a mental boost that can cause cravings for the drug among abusers after only one use, Muzina said.

Overdosing can lead to more severe consequences, including hypertensive crisis, heart attack, brain stroke and death.

Muzina said many students don’t think about the medical and legal ramifications of sharing their prescriptions, particularly when money doesn’t trade hands.

“You could potentially be held criminally liable especially if something bad happens to the person you gave your ADHD medication,” Muzina said. “The colleges need to promote more awareness of the risks of selling and sharing prescriptions.”

“The spirit of academic integrity”

Wesleyan and Duke universities moved to include the use of unprescribed medications as a violation of their codes of academic integrity in October 2010 and September 2011 respectively.

But the addition of a similar provision in the University’s academic bylaws is unlikely, Director of the Office of Academic Integrity Timothy Terpstra said.

Because the offices of student conduct and academic integrity are separate, Terpstra said he would defer any instance of illegality to the University’s behavioral arm.

Terpstra added that the use of stimulant drugs is not comparable to an athlete’s use of steroids because it doesn’t physically enable students to become smarter. The temporary affects are more like coffee or energy drinks, he said.

As the issue gains traction nationally, including a recent examination of Adderall usage at area colleges in The Washington Post, Terpstra plans to discuss the non-medical use of prescription drugs with the University’s 50-member council that arbitrates instances of cheating.

“Clearly it violates the spirit of academic integrity,” he said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.