The American University junior never finishes her monthly prescription of instant-release Adderall used to control her ADHD. She says taking the medication daily might result in sleeplessness or the pills losing their effectiveness. So she shares the extras with friends who promise to use it as a study aid, not a party drug. She sells whatever is left to friends of friends for $5 to $10 each.
“I really try to avoid doing it because it makes me feel like a drug dealer,” said the student, who didn’t want her name used because sharing or selling prescription drugs can be a felony and a violation of university policies. If caught, she could get kicked out of school or face jail time, but she doubts that would ever happen.
For more than two decades, college students have illegally taken prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall to stay awake and hyper-focused while studying. As sales of medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder soar, administrators worry that illegal use also is increasing.
The White House Office of Drug Control voiced concern about the increase in its latest strategy report, which promises to introduce policies in the next few years that will target college students and a range of substance abuse issues.
But cracking down on study drugs is nearly impossible, said several college administrators who have worked on the issue as it has gained wider attention in recent years. Students who abuse study drugs don’t reek of marijuana or show the tell-tale signs of excessive drinking. They rarely end up in hospital beds or jail cells.
“People on Adderall don’t pee in the hallways,” said Daniel Swinton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration and an assistant dean at Vanderbilt University. Study drugs are “kind of a silent issue. Everyone’s aware of it, but I think we’re all focused on the more prevalent one — alcohol.”
Hard to catch
During an average school year, a major local university typically will respond to hundreds of cases involving alcohol, dozens involving drugs and only a handful, at most, involving prescription stimulants, according to a Post analysis of statistics from area schools.
At more than a dozen major universities in the Washington region, there were nearly 1,400 drug-related cases during the past two school years. Of those, only three dozen were related to prescription drugs, most of which were ADHD medications.
When students using study drugs are caught, it is often in connection with another crime. University of Maryland police had three cases involving prescription stimulants in the past two years. Last spring, an officer investigated the smell of pot in a residence hall and found a student with marijuana and Adderall. During traffic stops in December 2009 and February 2010, officers found pills when they searched cars.
When misused, prescription stimulants can cause an irregular heart beat, panic attacks and in rare cases death, especially when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. These prescription medications are similar to cocaine and can be addictive. But experts say there is little evidence of a widespread medical crisis or growing rates of addiction.
In the past decade, University of Virginia students have made about 16,000 visits to the emergency room. Only a handful of those visits involved stimulants, said James C. Turner, executive director of U-Va.’s Department of Student Health and former president of the American College Health Association.
“Maybe they just use it once to stay up late to study, but they’re not becoming chronic users,” Turner said.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the amount of illicit use taking place, as studies often use different measures that result in a wide range of results. Most college substance-abuse policies now include the words “prescription drugs,” and many schools educate students about the dangers of study drugs during orientation or health seminars. They also are trying to identify the issues that drive abuse, such as excessive stress, poor study skills or too much partying on school nights.
At some schools, including American, parents are told to check in with their students during midterms and finals and ask questions about how they manage stress. At U-Va., students are told that if they need drugs to make it through their homework, they should get tested for ADHD or a learning disability. Duke University declared that illegally using prescription stimulants is academic dishonesty.
Other schools are targeting potential dealers. At George Washington University, students with ADHD prescriptions are told to purchase a safe for their dorm room.
Students who want to try the drugs usually don’t have to look far for a classmate with a prescription. Millions of children and adults have received a diagnosis of ADHD. Last fall, 5 percent of incoming college freshmen had the disorder, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.