In a few weeks, first semester exams will begin on Canadian campuses. That means a lot of late nights, Starbucks, study sessions and, increasingly, the drug Adderall.
The non-medical use of drugs prescribed for ADHD is coming into the spotlight once again, as students in schools across Canada say that so-called study drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are easy to get and now commonplace features of student life.
For years, health care advocates have been warning about the need for greater action on students using prescription stimulants to boost academic performance.
“In the last ten years a number of new stimulant medications have been approved for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, treatment, and the expansion of this market, coupled with the increasing rates of ADHD diagnosis, provides greater availability of these drugs,” said Dr. Yanning Wang, lead author of a study last year which looked at the use of ADHD drugs among youth and found that 88 per cent of teens who used the drugs non-medically were not prescribed the drugs themselves but obtained them through other means.
On campus, students say that drugs like Adderall during exam periods and term paper crunch times are everywhere.
“University students today have little difficulty finding prescription drugs like Adderall due to the vast connections that are available on campus,” Liam Pownall, a third year physics student at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, told Cantech Letter recently.
A lot of students have said that they can go to their family doctor and write a test that has a gauge to show the score you need to get to be prescribed a certain dose. That takes about twenty minutes and about five or six kids I talked to said that they were prescribed it no problem…
“It’s really easy to get Adderall on campus,” says Nic Volpe, a fourth year business student at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo. “A lot of students have said that they can go to their family doctor and write a test that has a gauge to show the score you need to get to be prescribed a certain dose. That takes about twenty minutes and about five or six kids I talked to said that they were prescribed it no problem.”
Volpe estimates that about half of the students at Wilfred Laurier have tried the drug, a result he credits in part to how cheap Adderall is.
“It costs $1/mg and usually is purchased in 5mg and 10mg capsules,” says Volpe. “So for $10 you are able to guarantee that you can study for close to 12 hours straight depending on how big you are and how much you have used it.”
A combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, Adderall is a stimulant prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For those with ADHD, taking prescribed doses of the drug can improve concentration and help with a number of associated symptoms such as antisocial and disruptive behaviour.
For those who don’t have ADHD or who take the drug at unprescribed doses, Adderall can give a jolt of energy and an added level of focus, just what might be needed to get a student through a night of cramming.
A 2015 Canadian tobacco and drug survey by Statistics Canada found that stimulant use was higher among youth and young adults than among adults, with five per cent of those aged 15 to 19 and four per cent of those aged 20 to 24 using the drugs in comparison to just 0.5 per cent of the adult population.
Up to 70 per cent of these drugs have been obtained from medicine cabinets. When it comes to monitoring prescription drugs, we need to do more nationally…
“I’ve never actually heard from students about using it,” says Sascha Maicher, a philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa. “But it’s hard to imagine a situation where they would be comfortable talking about it with a prof.”
But Volpe says that beyond its use during crunch time, some students are taking Adderall more regularly. ”The range I have heard is that approximately 50 per cent of students have tried Adderall to cram for an assignment or exam and that probably around 30 per cent of students use Adderall to study on a regular basis,” he says.
But along with a short-term boost in focus and positive energy, the drugs can lead to depression and a coming down effect afterwards, as well as more long-term issues such as addiction, growing tolerance to the drug, being more prone to misuse other drugs and even cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health problems.
The ready availability of drugs like Adderall needs to be addressed, says Michel Perron, CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. “Up to 70 per cent of these drugs have been obtained from medicine cabinets,” Perron said. “When it comes to monitoring prescription drugs, we need to do more nationally.”
Yet, at the same time, there’s a level of ambivalence within the science and health professions over drugs like Adderall which some more promisingly refer to as cognitive enhancers. Proponents of that viewpoint say that properly regulated and practiced, taking Adderall-type drugs can be a not-so-harmful way to boost brain power and, overall, could be a boon to society.
“Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly,” writes Henry Greely, Stanford law professor, and Barbara Sahakian, psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, in the journal Nature Neuroethics. “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function.”
Psychiatrist Derryck Smith, an ADHD expert in Vancouver, says that society has to accept that individuals like those on our university and college campuses are going to use these drugs to try to improve cognition. “We’re much better off having these medications prescribed by doctors,” Smith said to CTV News. “We spend large amounts of money on making people’s breasts or noses bigger or smaller, why would we not allow people to spend money on cognitive enhancement?”
That sentiment may be making it easier for students to justify their off-label use of Adderall, says Volpe. “I have friends who are super against it and strong believe it is cheating,” he says. “Others, obviously the ones who use it, say that it isn’t cheating at all, and that it is completely fair game.”
“Their main argument to it being fair game goes back to the fact that it is so easily accessible,” he says.