More students than ever are breaking the law by using prescription drugs not meant for them, a trend experts say puts their futures in jeopardy in return for a short-term study high that can carry serious consequences.
Nearly one in five college undergraduates used prescription stimulants, or so-called “study drugs,” for non-medical reasons, according to the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study, which counted responses from 3,900 students nationwide.
Another study found that nearly one in three were either offered or used stimulant drugs such as Adderall or Vyvanse for non-medical purposes at some point during their college careers.
“Students think they’re ‘study drugs’ and don’t see potential harm in misusing them,” said Ken Hale, co-director of the Generation Rx initiative at Ohio State University. “They are mixed amphetamines. They can be addicting. They require a prescription. They’re controlled substances.”
They’re also regularly shared or sold on college and even high school campuses, used by students trying to stay awake while cramming for tests or finishing papers. Seventy-one percent of respondents in the Ohio State study said stimulants were “somewhat easy or very easy” to obtain.
Hale said usage of the drugs has “gone up dramatically” in recent years, in part because drugs are overprescribed.
“It’s pretty easy to get,” said Rachel, a University of Dayton student who was interviewed for this story but did not want her last name published. “If you need it, someone in your friend group would know someone you could go to.”
Rachel said the going rate for Adderall at UD is $20 for six tablets. When she uses, she takes small dosages and said “it hits really quickly.”
“It focuses you for like 30 minutes, an hour. You get really, really hyper,” she said. “If you don’t focus on your studying you’ll focus on something else and be hyper and into the other thing. It helps with energy levels.”
While a user might be able to stay awake all night, the end result is debatable.
“If you look at the academic performance for the students who admit misusing them, it’s actually lower than other students,” OSU’s Hale said. “People call these drugs ‘cognitive enhancers.’ I would suggest they’re really ‘academic compensators’ — I didn’t go to class, I have two papers and an exam tomorrow so I have to stay up and cram.”
Plenty of risk
Stimulants such as Adderall are classified as Schedule II drugs, which means they are highly regulated.
“Schedule I drugs, you can’t even possess. Schedule II is, for pharmacists, their most highly regulated,” said Ernie Boyd, executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association. “That’s where opiates sit and where a lot of these stimulant drugs used for ADHD are placed.
“It’s a new set of drugs but an old story. In the ’60s and ’70s amphetamines were used regularly, again improperly and not within the law, on college campuses.”
Unprescribed possession of Adderall or similar drugs in small quantities is a fifth-degree felony in Ohio, but few students are prosecuted for selling or possessing. Because the drugs come in capsule or tablet form, they are difficult to spot.
Miami University police chief John McCandless says his office refers only a handful of cases each year to the Butler County Prosecutor.
“When we do come upon this type of stuff it’s typically someone that we ask and is giving an honest answer, so that would lead me to believe that they probably don’t even realize what a big deal it is to do that,” McCandless said.
A spokesman for the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office couldn’t recall the last time a case was referred to the office from a local college.
UD’s public safety department could not recall any study drug cases in recent years. Punishment for students caught buying and selling the drugs at UD can include expulsion, said Amanda Pollack, associate director of community standards and civility.
“Every case is different,” Pollack said. “We take into account a student’s history and circumstances, but suspension and expulsion are certainly options when a student is found buying any sort of drugs.”
On a scale of 1-to-5, with 5 being the most dangerous, Pollack rated study drugs as a 4.5.
An online survey of 83 UD students conducted by a Communications student rated the danger of using ADD or ADHD medications without a prescription at 2.89 — lower than alcohol and tobacco.
“You don’t read a lot about college kids dropping over, but you’re setting yourself up for potentially bad clinical problems, and felony arrest is not a good deal,” Boyd said. “I don’t quite catch how they totally miss that part. Possession of it without it being your prescription is illegal, period.”
Alecia Smith, coordinator of alcohol and other drug prevention at UD, warned that without an evaluation by a medical professional, users of drugs such as Adderall run the risk of side effects such as paranoia, anxiety and heart palpitations.
“You are taking someone else’s drugs,” she said. “When a doctor prescribes someone medicine, they take into account age, sex, height, and weight, along with many other factors.”
The warnings do not resonate with many users, including Rachel.
“Kids do Adderall on every single campus in the United States,” she said. “It’s not heroin or coke or anything.”
Andrea Hoff, director of prevention and early intervention for the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board, says study drugs are classified as a psychoactive substances and can become addictive — especially if they are snorted directly into the blood system.
“The minute an individual beings to crush and snort they are much more likely to become addicted. The high is greater because the potency of it is going directly to the brain,” she said.
Hoff said the study drugs produce an overabundance of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that produces pleasure.
“So once an individual continues to take them, and this happens with all addiction, the brain basically shuts down its ability to produce its own dopamine because you’re doing it chemically,” Hoff said.
“Even though they’re experiencing something where they should be feeling happy, they’re not feeling happy anymore. The only thing that makes them feel that pleasure is using again.”
The fact that the stimulants come in familiar-looking pills or capsules gives students a high comfort level, said Hale, citing a study estimating that 6.5 million Americans misused a prescription drug in the past month.
He also points an accusing finger at what he calls the “drug-taking culture” in the United States.
“We’re 5 percent of the world’s population and we use 75 percent of the world’s pharmaceuticals. We use about 95 percent of opioid pain medications.
“We see drug ads on television. Only two countries in the world allow that: New Zealand and us. It sort of normalizes it; it’s just what we do. We’d rather take that hypertension medication than change our diet and exercise.”
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