Photo by Cade Schmidt

Studies have shown, time and time again, that increased drug abuse in college students leads to higher dropout rates. The nonmedical use of the prescription drug Adderall seems to contradict this. When students without prescriptions for Adderall use the drug, they may be doing so to increase academic focus and performance. 

The common “study drugs,” Adderall, Ritalin and Dexedrine, are all prescribed stimulants used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Adderall is commonly used to treat adults with ADHD. The drug’s mix of amphetamine salts helps increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. The increase helps balance chemical concentrations in the brains of people with ADHD, allowing them to focus better.

Dr. Emily Gibson, director of Western’s Student Health Center, said in an email that students may associate Adderall with an increased ability to study because individuals feel the medication helps them focus for long amounts of time.

Like all amphetamines, Adderall can cause chemical dependency among users, Gibson said. Common side effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, weight loss and the possible development of permanent motor tics. Gibson said there is conflicting data on whether Adderall use can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. 

To get a prescription for Adderall from the health center, students need to be diagnosed with ADHD through a lengthy process, which includes a complete neural-psychological evaluation, documented evidence of poor academic performance and a thorough medical history of past symptoms, Gibson said.

“It is never as simple as, ‘I can’t focus, or I can’t stay on task and my roommate’s Adderall helped,’” Gibson said. “Potentially anyone would concentrate more effectively under the influence of stimulants, but it doesn’t mean they have ADHD.”

In response to the difficult nature of acquiring a prescription, an underground market for Adderall has evolved.

One Western junior, a communication major who asked to remain anonymous, regularly sells his prescribed Adderall to friends and peers. He said he receives 60 15-mg Adderall extended release pills each month. Of these 60, he said he will usually sell 45 of them and keep 15 for personal use. The fluctuating demand for Adderall throughout the academic year allows him to vary his prices. He said he usually charges $5 per pill, but during dead week and finals week, he can get up to $10 per pill.

In Washington, the small-scale illegal sale of amphetamines, those involving less than 2 kilograms, is a class B felony and can result in up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $25,000, according the state’s Uniform Controlled Substances Act.

“I was never prescribed as much as I am until I went to college,” he said. “I’m prescribed two-a-day, every day except for weekends, and I would never take more than three pills a week, just because it definitely changes me and my personality.”

He said that while Adderall does help him focus and do well in school, occasional side effects, such as loss of appetite, mood swings and social awkwardness, lead him to take less than he is prescribed. Even though he sells the drug, he suggests that students seeking to use Adderall for the first time stay away from it entirely.

“If you’ve gone this far without it, then you’re not going to need it because you have your own ability to focus,” he said. “Adderall is not going to help you beyond your absolute potential. So if something is too challenging for you, it’s just challenging, and you should focus on your own way to deal with it.”

Students may use Adderall when they have to cram a lot of work into a short amount of time. However, Barbara Quick, assistant director of learning support services at Western’s Tutoring Center, said cramming is not the way to go. She said students should spend at least 10 minutes per class each day reviewing notes, and at least 30 minutes per class at the end of each week to integrate everything they learned. By dividing work into manageable pieces, Quick said that students could increase their long-term memory and avoid some of the situations that may lead them to use Adderall to stay awake and study.

“If you’re not functioning well physically, you’re not going to be able to concentrate and do well on the test,” Quick said. “Do get enough sleep and do eat well before a test, even if you’re in a cramming situation.”