Adderall is the new Red Bull
The students interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity, and their names have been changed. When Brad speaks, you hear his private school education come through, though much has happened since. In sure, articulate sentences, he draws a picture of prescription drug abuse, a topic he knows about first hand. He speaks not of Oxycodone, Xanax and Vicodin – the medications that receive as much press as the celebrities who overdose on them – but of the rampant use of Adderall, a prescription drug he has been selling to students at a number of Los Angeles colleges.
Adderall is a psychostimulant used in the treatment of ADD/ADHD. But on college campuses, it is better known as a "study drug", and is often misused by ADD and non-ADD students alike to enhance academic performance. Adderall, and similar drugs like Ritalin and Concerta, work by releasing dopamine into the neural pathways. These drugs stimulate the brain, allow it to hyperfocus, eliminate the need for sleep, and reduce appetite.
Tara, an SMC student, was pre-med at a highly competitive university in New York. She was nonchalant about the use of Adderall on her campus.
“Weed was to chill, coke was to party, and Adderall was to study,” she said.
During exam week, Tara would prepare for all-nighters with Powerade, two liters of water, and an Adderall pill.
“It would put you in a trench, in a zone,” she said of time-release Adderall, which enabled her to study for eight hours straight.
Adderall is an amphetamine, sharing a core ingredient with the notoriously addictive methamphetamine. Just like meth and cocaine, it is legally a Schedule II drug, which classifies it as highly addictive and susceptible to abuse. Possession is a felony offense in California.
According to research conducted by Alan Desantis of the University of Kentucky, 34 percent of college students have taken stimulant drugs without a prescription. For juniors and seniors, the number is over 50 percent, and in fraternities, it is as high as 80 percent. Most students obtain or buy the drugs from friends who have received them legitimately. Others fake ADD symptoms, which are just a Google search away, and receive a steady, legal supply from doctors.
Brad was prescribed Adderall at 13, after being diagnosed with ADHD. At 14, he tried marijuana for the first time, and has since experimented with and sworn off many drugs. Yet, he is incredulous that his first exposure to an addictive drug came under the sanctions of his parents and school.
“You know you’re on,” says Brad, underlining "on" with his voice. “No child should feel such a rush.”
When Brad was diagnosed with ADHD nearly 10 years ago, he was but one of seven percent. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of children diagnosed with an attention disorder has increased to nearly 10 percent, thus flooding middle and high schools and beyond with legal drugs that can be potentially diverted for non-medical purposes.
In one such situation, a socially awkward high-school freshman gave his pills away to a girl he liked in order to impress her. The boy didn’t get the girl, but the girl and her friend Jess, now an SMC student, started ”slanging” pills to other students, and experimenting themselves.
Jess has not used Adderall in the last six years, and is appalled by how socially acceptable it has become.
“People don’t realize that this is speed,” she said.
While Adderall is reportedly more stable and less addictive than meth, it carries the risk of cardiac arrest and stroke, and is especially dangerous and can be fatal when interacting with other substances, like alcohol.
Ross Aikins, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Research and Development Institution in New York, did his dissertation at UCLA on prescription stimulant abuse. He found that students often did not recognize the dangers involved in mixing Adderall with alcohol.
Less lethal, but perhaps more alarming, are the more common effects of dependence, both physical and psychological.
“You feel so successful and productive with the drug, that you feel less capable without it,” said Aikins. “You feel like you need it."
He also raised the question of the ethical implications. For example, when athletes take steroids, they are disqualified for cheating; so how is it different when a student takes a drug that allows them to stay up all night and whip out a paper in three hours? Aikins said that many students were motivated to take Adderall because they felt they needed it to compete.
“If you didn’t take it, you were at a real disadvantage,” agreed Tara, who said she only took Adderall during exams, and always felt in control. “I don’t regret taking Adderall. I did what I had to do to get my grade.”
But according to Aikins, "A lot of the students regretted taking it.”
Brad recently stopped selling and doesn't take Adderall himself. In his experience, the line between controlling the drug, and being controlled by it, is fine indeed.
He reminisced about his elementary school soccer coach. Putting on a British accent, he asked an invisible group of nine-year-olds, “What does practice make?”
“Perfect,” they answered.
“No,” Brad countered in his British soccer coach persona. “Only perfect practice makes perfect permanence.”
Back in his own voice, wondering aloud, he considered the potential ramifications of a generation that forfeits discipline for pharmaceutically augmented success.