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High Marks

More young adults abuse prescription drugs than cocaine, marijuana or heroine. One drug in particular -- Adderall -- is popular campus-wide among honors students. It keeps them up all night and helps boost their GPAs. It also wreacks havoc on their hearts

 by Megan Irwin
 published on Thursday, December 1, 2005

/issues/arts/695164
On the cover
 
ASU pharmacist Karl Labbe examines a bottle of Adderall. He says students who abuse the drug don't understand the consequences. In spite of his worry, he says he's not suprised. Labbe says when he was in pharmacy school abuse of stimulants was widespread. /issues/arts/695164
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
ASU pharmacist Karl Labbe examines a bottle of Adderall. He says students who abuse the drug don't understand the consequences. In spite of his worry, he says he's not suprised. Labbe says when he was in pharmacy school abuse of stimulants was widespread.
 
Shaina Levee crushes an Adderall pill. Some users snort the drug. Right: Nick Andrews was prescribed Adderall in fourth grade. /issues/arts/695164
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Shaina Levee crushes an Adderall pill. Some users snort the drug. Right: Nick Andrews was prescribed Adderall in fourth grade.
 

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A 15-page term paper looms over her head and a blank computer screen stares her in the face. After a week of this scenario, sociology senior Christine* decides to try a new approach to studying, something she's never done before: take a prescription pill to focus her concentration.

Her pill of choice is Adderall, a prescription central nervous system stimulant used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactivity, disorders she does not have. In other words, Christine took an amphetamine to get her paper done.

Christine swallows 5 mg of the drug -- half a pill -- around 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening at her parent's house. She says as she drives home a few hours later, the pill starts to kick in.

"I felt motivated and content," she says. "As I drove I was thinking about my work and my life in a very rational matter. I was analyzing things instead of being emotional."

When she got home, Christine says she found it much easier to settle into her paper writing.

"I don't feel speedy, but I feel very awake right now," she says. "The thought of laying in bed right now -- which is what I did all day -- is rather unappealing. Now I just want to do my paper. Like, I really want to do it."

At 11 p.m., she says the effects of the drug might be fading. She considers taking the other half of her pill, but decides against it, saying maybe she'll save it for Sunday when she has to work a 10-hour shift at her retail job. Christine's concentration begins to wane, though she says she still feels wide-awake. She gets up to do some odd jobs around the house.

"I'm a little distracted," she says. "I went and did dishes, I replaced the light bulb on my front porch. But it's different from the avoidance mechanisms I usually use. Earlier today, I tried to write this paper. I sat at my computer. I went on Myspace. I looked at my paper again. I sighed. I laid in bed. Now I feel like I can do it."

By the time she fell asleep for the night, around 3 a.m., Christine managed to turn out eight pages of her paper, quite an accomplishment in only a few hours. She's pleased with the results.

"I would take Adderall again if I had another big assignment due," she says.

Drugged Up

Christine isn't the only one using chemicals to finish big assignments. According to a study released in July by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, prescription drug abuse among people age 18 and older increased 81 percent from 1992 to 2003. During that 11-year time span, the number of new stimulant users (the category Adderall falls under) jumped 170 percent.

During this same time period, Adderall and other prescription drugs claimed more new users than street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens or inhalants.

Joseph Califano, the center's chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, says the abuse of prescription drugs is stronger than ever.

"Our nation is in the throes of an epidemic of controlled prescription drug abuse and addiction," he says. "While America has been congratulating itself in recent years on curbing increases in alcohol and illicit drug abuse ... abuse of prescription drugs has been stealthily, rising."

Artificial Intelligence

Mike Garcia, a 19-year-old pre-business sophomore, is one of the new users among that 170 percent. Though he's recently tempered his Adderall use, he admits to having used the drug on and off since high school and adds use of the drug as a study aid at ASU is common, at least in the honors residence halls where he lived freshman year.

"It's not really stigmatized at all," he says. "It's just something that you use. Considering it's the use of an illegal drug, it's surprisingly widespread."

Garcia says he first discovered Adderall helped him study when he was in high school. He says he knows he doesn't have ADD and isn't prescribed to the drug, but when he got to college, the need to stay up all night writing papers and studying only increased, especially considering his status as an honors student.

"If you're in the honors college, you have in your mind some academic standard. You have plans and things you need to accomplish in order for those plans to happen," he says. "So you pile on the courses. If you get backed up and prescription drugs are the way to do it, then that's one thing you can do to maintain that level of performance."

He says he used the drug heavily last spring, including to complete a paper for his Honors 172 class. He took the pill around 7 p.m. and says his thoughts flowed easily together. As the night wore on, he says things started to get a bit odd due to the sleep deprivation Adderall causes.

"You get everything done and it's getting toward sunrise and you haven't slept. You've been up for 24 hours basically. I'm walking around campus and I just feel like I'm in a daze," he says. "I couldn't feel the effects of the drug anymore, but you don't feel like you're on this planet at all. It's very weird."

ASU's Department of Public Safety only has 10 cases of prescription drug abuse documented in the past two years, and the ASU pharmacy has only doled out 24 bottles of Adderall in the past month. But Garcia says the lack of documentation doesn't mean abuse as a study aid isn't common, it's just tough to detect.

"You can get messed up on Adderall and wander around campus. You don't smell like drugs, you don't really look like you're on drugs," he says. "I really don't see how someone could get caught."

Detective Parker Dunwoody with ASU DPS admits it's difficult to catch students abusing prescription drugs. But because Adderall is an amphetamine, he says users will show the same characteristics -- panic, mood swings, depression, excessive persperation -- as someone on meth.

He says he worries students feel safer using Adderall because it's not technically a street drug.

"They think because the federal government says Adderall is OK [when used as prescribed] and they say meth [and other street drugs] is not, they can just take that," he says.

He adds that while taking Adderall might not feel like taking a street drug, students could face serious consequences if caught. Because Adderall is in the amphetamine family, Dunwoody says it's classified as a "dangerous drug." The sale of dangerous drugs is a class IV felony, meaning students who sell their prescriptions could face real jail time. And while possession is only a class I misdemenor, Dunwoody says the consequences are still severe.

"Expect the max," he says. "Expect to be charged with [possession or sale of] a dangerous drug."

Still, Garcia says most student users don't see the danger. In spite of the possible consequences, the drug is not hard to find.

"It's just one of those things," says Garcia, "No matter where you are, you're going to hear something about it. There are connections everywhere."

The Pushers

Shaina Levee is that connection for some of ASU's Adderall users. The 21-year-old sociology major and honors student says she's prescribed to the drug and has sold it since her freshman year, when she sold it to students in her hall.

"When you first start meeting people, the conversation runs around the drugs you've used, the places you've been and where you came from," she says. "People would tell me the drugs they used, and I'd tell them 'I'm prescribed to Adderall and I sell it.' That's how it got started. Sophomore year, I started selling pot and through the people I'd meet selling pot, I'd advertise that I sell Adderall, too. It was always to turn a profit. This is a for-profit business."

Levee says she normally charges $3 for 10 milligrams of the drug, less if someone is buying in bulk, more if the purchaser is a freshman. But before she sold the drug, even before she was prescribed to it, she says she also used it recreationally. Like Garcia, Levee discovered the drug in high school.

"I started taking Adderall and I was a superhero. I could take that Adderall and be awake all day and then go out and party with my friends all night," she says. "I could drink like 12 beers. I could smoke as much pot as I wanted and still be able to function."

She says she discovered the drug because her friend Nick Andrews was prescribed to it and used to share it with his friends. Andrews also attends ASU and agrees with Levee and Garcia that use on campus is widespread. Like his high school friend, Andrews also used to sell it, though he says he's stopped taking and selling the drug and never tried to turn a profit from his medication.

Perhaps because he's been prescribed to Adderall since the fourth grade, Andrews has a different perspective of it. He's sensitive about his medication and says he gets tired of people asking him for the drug.

"Back then [when he was diagnosed with ADD], it was almost something to be ashamed of. You'd tell people and they'd look at you like you were terminally ill. In high school I'd tell people I had ADD and they'd be like 'give me your medicine,'" he says. "I don't know which end of the spectrum I like more: people thinking I'm a freak or people using me for my medication."

Andrews says he stopped taking Adderall a month ago, even though it does help control his ADD.

"I don't like the idea of being dependent on anything, especially that," he says. "If I have a gigantic paper or something, then I might take it. But I don't take it daily like I used to."

When the Pill Pops

Andrews' worries about chemical dependency on the drug are not unfounded. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Adderall is classified as an amphetamine. The FDA's Web site warns, "Amphetamines have a high potential for abuse. Taking amphetamines for long periods of time may lead to drug addiction ... Misuse of amphetamine may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular adverse events."

Karl Labbe, a pharmacist at ASU, says this fine-print warning is not something Adderall users should take lightly.

Labbe says prolonged abuse of Adderall can cause paranoia, delusions and loss of focus when not on the drug --not to mention the symptoms of withdrawal long-term users can experience when they stop taking the drug. Labbe adds that the amphetamine significantly speeds up the heart rate, which can lead to cardiovascular problems and stroke.

Garcia says he's aware of the possible consequences of abusing Adderall to study, even in controlled dosages, but he doesn't appear too concerned.

"It's just science," he says. "You have to expect some kind of reaction. When you drink, you get a hangover. When you smoke pot, you go to sleep. It's just how it goes. It's something I've accepted as the risk of taking a drug. You have to be conscious of what you're doing to your body, and you can't be pissed where there are these consequences."

For Garcia and others who use the drug to get the grades they want, the payoff is worth the potential health risk. Garcia says one of the biggest attractions of the drug is the fact that it works in a very controlled way to help him focus his thoughts.

"That's a big draw for a lot of people who wouldn't normally use drugs," says Garcia. "This is a prescription drug, it's been synthesized for a specific purpose. It's not [popular] because it's a prescription drug or because it comes from a company, but because it works in a very specific way."

He adds that because Adderall works in such a formulaic way, it should come as no surprise that students in the honors college use it to boost their GPA's. Andrew's agrees, saying the people who normally ask for his pills are serious students.

"It [Adderall abuse] is more common among people who are more serious about their classes," he says. "It's kind of funny that it's smart people. You'd expect people who can't study want it, and it's people who can study on their own, they're just looking for an easy way out."

Garcia agrees it's a stereotype to lump honors students in some kind of "good kids" group, though he disagrees with the thought that taking Adderall is a simple solution to scholastic laziness.

"The smart kids and the good kids are not necessarily the same people. It's like a Venn diagram -- there's overlap, but they're not the same group," he says. "Intelligent kids tend to think about things in non-standard ways, and they don't accept things they're told. It's hard to tell an intelligent kid, 'Don't take this drug because it's illegal.' An intelligent kid is going to say 'What's the law?'"

Reach the reporter at megan.irwin@asu.edu.

* Editor's Note: Name has been changed at the subject's request.



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