It was 1 p.m. when a female freshman sat down in Gelman Library last month to write a research paper – the deadline was just 11 hours away.
She typed and retyped, rewrote and revised the University Writing paper without eating or taking a break. After she finished the last sentence, she looked up from her computer.
About 10 hours had passed – and she felt like she could still keep going.
Her focus and alertness were aided by a small orange pill – Adderall, a prescription stimulant prescribed for disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, that she does not have. Adderall is generally recognized as a “study drug” for students without these disorders because of its ability to boost productivity and extend wakefulness.
The freshman is one of 14 students who said in interviews that they’ve used these easily accessible drugs, especially during the stressful midterm and final exam period, to compensate for procrastinating school work and to meet approaching course deadlines. The students all spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Their accounts shed light on how students misuse prescription drugs to gain an edge on a campus where students face an often-stressful balance of academic and extracurricular responsibilities. Experts said the practice is dangerous because misusing these drugs can take a mental and physical toll.
The student, who earned an A on the University Writing paper, said she takes Adderall exclusively during final exam season. She receives the drug for free from a friend with an ADHD diagnosis, who is prescribed the medication by a doctor, she said.
“When you’re trying to balance all these things and you think there’s something that can help with that – it’s very appealing and it’s so accessible,” she said. “I was like well, why not? What would I be losing if I didn’t take it?”
Brianne Molloy, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department, conducted studies of 344 students in the fall measuring the prevalence of prescription stimulant misuse on campus and the reasons students turn to these drugs.
About 13 percent of students at GW have misused prescription stimulants for academic reasons over the past year, but students perceive the number of users on campus to be closer to 60 percent, according to her research. She said students primarily misuse prescription stimulants to serve academic purposes, like improving concentration and getting schoolwork done in a short period of time.
“It might be on the higher side because GW students might encounter unique social influences for misuse,” Molloy said. “The college environment has a lot of academic and social demands which might be higher at GW.”
But the issue is not unique to GW. Full-time college students are twice as likely to abuse Adderall than their peers who are not in college, according to a National Survey on Drug and Health report released in 2016.
Twelve students who are not prescribed stimulant drugs said Adderall misuse is all too common upon arriving to GW, where study drugs can be easily obtained through subtle requests to peers with prescriptions. Dealers said they usually sell for $5 to $15 a pill, depending on the dosage.
One student who takes Adderall regularly said prescription drugs are easily accessible – even though distribution is typically “low-key” – because of the increasing number of students diagnosed with ADHD that are willing to lend out their prescriptions.
“Most of the time, if you just walk down your hall you will find someone on your floor with a prescription or that just ‘knows a guy’ around who can get you some,” she said.
Pressure to be perfect
One student said she started buying Adderall from a friend with a prescription her freshman year. Now a junior, the student said she became reliant on the concentration boost for major assignments but now only takes it during midterm and final exams.
“When the amount of work feels insurmountable, the Adderall helps you just focus, sit down and do it,” she said.
Danielle Lico, the associate dean of students for student administrative services, who oversees the Colonial Health Center, said officials are “committed to continuing to educate students on the dangers of these drugs through outreach programs and information tables.” She said non-prescribed use of drugs like Adderall is an issue on college campus across the country, including at GW.
“While using these drugs without a prescription and sharing them with others is against the Code of Conduct, our primary focus is and remains getting students connected to educational resources so they can learn about the dangers of these drugs and get help as appropriate,” Lico said in an email.
The Code of Conduct does not explicitly mention the misuse of legal drugs, but students found in possession of drugs with the intent to sell face fines and possible suspension or expulsion. It is also a federal crime to distribute many prescription stimulants without a license to prescribe.
Three students with a stimulant drug prescription said they often sell to either reel in profit or they distribute without charge within a close circle of friends as a favor.
One junior with a prescription to mitigate the effects of ADHD said he started doling out pills during his senior year of high school. But at GW, he does not consider himself a “local campus dealer,” just someone with extra Adderall to share.
“Everyone comes to a point where they need, there’s a deadline coming up or so much to do in a short period of time,” he said.
But other students with prescriptions said it’s unfair for students to take medication they don’t need and refrain from selling to non-prescribed peers.
One freshman with an Adderall prescription to mitigate the effects of ADHD said students who use stimulant drugs to enhance academic performance place him at a disadvantage because he needs the drug to stay “on par” with peers.
“If someone takes Adderall who doesn’t need it, then the playing field becomes uneven again,” he said.
Dangers of unprescribed use
Pharmaceutical experts said Adderall misuse places individuals at risk for addiction because of its ability to increase feel-good chemicals in the brain, escalating its effects on individuals who aren’t prescribed.
Kelly Matson, a clinical professor at the University of Rhode Island, said students with ADHD often believe they’re helping their peers without understanding the dangers the drugs pose to those who aren’t prescribed – including increased heart rate, headache or loss of appetite.
“It’s kind of this myth that it can increase your focus,” she said, referring to the long-term effects of usage. “As we learn from more studies that come out, a lot of times it’s linked with students who are academically struggling – that may be their shortcut.”
Mary Andres, a clinical professor at University of Southern California, said Adderall makes students feel “smarter than they actually are,” creating an air of confidence they wouldn’t otherwise experience.
“The students going to college now – we have a lot of high achievers,” she said. “So the shift has been a lot of students are anxious about college. With that pressure comes seeking these resources.”
Matt Dynes contributed reporting.