Cyber-Adderall Meets Finals

As finals loom, students find more ways to illegally share stimulants, but health experts don't have a firm grasp on the extent of the problem.
December 14, 2005

Last week, a student from Manhattan posted an ad on Craigslist that read, “Adderall XR. Anyone have any? Finals are coming up.”

According to the poster of the ad, several students have responded to the inquiry, offering to sell anywhere from 1 to 50 of the tablets in doses of 5- to 20-milligrams.

Come exam time, some students wouldn’t be caught dead looking online for something as mundane as a used couch or a new roommate. Instead, many are making mad-dash searches for illegal ways to stay awake, stay alert, and stay in good academic standing. Meanwhile, researchers have been slow to measure the newer aspects of this phenomenon.

“There is a high number of students on campus today with prescriptions, and we know, anecdotally, they are sharing them,” says Michael McNeil, who coordinates the Health Empowerment Office at Temple University and is a former staff member of the American College Health Association. “It makes good sense that this problem would increase around finals time, but national surveys don’t have hard numbers on this for the college population.”

McNeil notes that today’s students are some of the first to have grown up with regular access to medications to treat psychological disorders, while having access to technology that makes sharing their drugs easier.

And they’re taking advantage of both situations.

Many students are posting finals-related sale and purchase offers on online bulletin boards, in their personal blogs, and have made connections through in search for a stimulant score.

Adderall, an amphetamine that helps people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to focus, has a stimulant effect on people without the disorder who take it. For those who take too much of the drug, heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure and psychotic episodes have been observed.

The Internet may have made illegal stimulant sharing somewhat easier (and more anonymous), but the phenomenon isn’t limited to the online world.

“Everyone knows at least one friend who has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD,” says a soon-to-graduate marketing student at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “Three of my best friends are prescribed to Adderall. They never use Adderall as they are directed (daily or twice daily), so they always have extras. Most of the time, I'll give them a few bucks for some pills or they will just give some for free.

“I use Adderall maybe once a month,” he says, noting that he’s taken the drug throughout his college experience. “Only when I have a really hard exam, or finals week, etc.”

This week, the student has used the drug to get through his last set of finals before graduation. He also says that some teacher assistants have “often mentioned it class that they have used Adderall to study.”

The same student has also tinkered extensively with caffeine and energy drinks like Red Bull as a way to stay alert during exam time. He says that in addition to drinking several cups of coffee a day, he’s grown an affinity for a product called Jolt Gum. Just two pieces of the candy have the equivalent amount of caffeine as one cup of coffee.

The company that makes Jolt Gum, GumRunners LLC, reports that sales of its product “increase measurably” during finals time. “It’s caffeine, so it’s almost physically impossible to digest too much,” says Kevin Gass, a spokesman for the company. A Red Bull spokesman also confirmed that the company’s sales tend to increase in December and in the spring.

Still, caffeine isn’t the fix that many students are searching for, according to some students.  One student who attends the University of Michigan who wished not to be identified reports that caffeine tends to keep him awake, while making him jittery and anxious. “Adderall doesn't make you jittery like caffeine,” he says. “It puts you in the zone! Like instant motivation to keep studying or writing for whatever you're working on.”

Even with these kinds of reports coming from students, some health officials are reluctant to say there is a widespread problem.

McNeil, for one, notes that there are not good data on the Adderall phenomenon. He says that the National College Health Assessment, which is conducted by the American College Health Association, does not mention the drug specifically even though anecdotal evidence suggests greater access than ever before. Diet pills, speed, meth and “crank” (a colloquial term for methamphetamines) consumption habits are all asked about on the survey, which is conducted regularly on campuses nationwide.

Betsy Foy, an assistant director of student health and counseling services at Washington University in St. Louis, says that she participated in a meeting last week with officials from American College Health Association to discuss adding drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to the survey. “Without a broad-based survey, it’s possible that there are many more out there doing this than we know about,” says Foy. “I agree that we need a little better surveillance on this.”

One campus survey of the University of Wisconsin at Madison found in 2000 that 20 percent of students with Adderall prescriptions had abused the drug, shared it with friends or sold it.

But what if the phenomenon isn’t causing any problems?

Foy reports that during her intervention sessions with students drugs like Adderall have not been “a primary problem.”

“But I do hear all the time about students using it,” adds Foy. 

“We’re really focused at Temple on looking at health issues that students say are impairing their learning ability,” says McNeil. In a recent survey of the university’s students, the top 10 reasons students listed for not doing well in school included only one drug -- alcohol -- at the bottom of the list.  McNeil indicates that the number one reported issue -- stress -- tends to be more predictive of hampered learning than drug use.

The relative low risks to taking small amounts of the drug is one reason that health researchers may be looking the other way, according to McNeil. 

“I know there are dangers, but only when you abuse it,” says the student who attends the University of Missouri. “Taking it in moderation, anywhere from 5-20 mg, when you study is probably not bad. I know it raises your heart rate and your body temperature. I have taken more than 20 mg before, and that's when it gets dangerous. Your heart rate increases uncontrollably and you become very hot.”

Once finals are over this year, the student says he plans on making his habit a thing of the past. “In ‘the real world’ I believe I will get much more sleep and be able to concentrate on my work much better than in college.”



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