Adderall abuse: Unhealthy, unfair or ineffective?

The Addiction Journal estimates 1 in 4 college students misuse ADHD medicine.
The Addiction Journal estimates that one in four college students misuse ADHD medications. Adderall sales increased 3,100 percent between 2002 and 2005, according to a Washington Post article. Photo Illustration by Peter Yankowsky

Whether it's downed with a cup of coffee or crushed up and snorted before a party, illegal use of the cognition-enhancing ADHD prescription Adderall has pervaded college campuses across the United States.

Adderall sales in the U.S. increased more than 3,100 percent between 2002 and 2005, according to an article in The Washington Post. Although exact figures are unknown, the Addiction Journal reported an expected 1 in 4 college students misuse ADHD medications. College students between the ages of 18 and 22 were also reported to be twice as likely to abuse Adderall than non-students.

Sophomore Nathan Grove said increased Adderall use on college campuses could be attributed to more prescriptions being filled.

"There's a lot of students that haven't been prescribed or been diagnosed with ADD when they were kids and now they're in college, and they need it to pass classes," Grove said. "There's a lot more of it out there, and that makes it easier to get a hold of."

For students, there is a rigorous process to obtaining an Adderall prescription, said Stephanie Bagby-Stone, doctor of medicine and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.

"If a student has been diagnosed with ADHD before, they can't just call up and ask for a refill," Bagby-Stone said. "They have to provide records of past prescriptions and evaluations before a prescription can be written."

For students who haven't been diagnosed with ADHD, Bagby-Stone said full testing is required.

"There's IQ testing, learning disability testing and testing for ADHD," Bagby-Stone said. "Then the patient is evaluated by a psychiatrist. We've recognized potential problems with the misuse of ADHD medication and have put in place structured policies to make sure prescriptions are diagnosed adequately."

Prescribed Adderall to treat her ADD and certain side effects of depression, freshman Kelsey Kupferer said she is constantly approached about possible distribution of her medication. She said students generally request the medication for school-related activities.

"People have this perception of Adderall as being this miracle drug that will make you smarter and increase your test scores and all these wonderful things," Kupferer said. "As soon as anybody finds out for some reason or another that I am on Adderall, they're like, 'Oh! Oh! Can I buy some from you?' or, 'I know someone who needs it! My friend's taking the MCAT's next month, and he needs it really badly.'"

Opponents of illicit Adderall usage often argue the drug provides an unfair advantage for non-prescribed users in academic environments. A drug meant to alleviate concentration issues for people with ADHD, Adderall heightens the ability for a non-user to focus.

Kupferer said the claim that Adderall gives some students a leg-up over others is not necessarily valid.

"I think you can be involved in lots of things and have a social life and be at the top of your game academically without needing Adderall," Kupferer said.

Increased use among people without a prescription has raised questions about the educational atmosphere of today's universities. Critics of the prescription drug speculate the competitive nature of the U.S.’ learning institutions along with the increased emphasis on standardized test scores has led to the drug's prolific abuse.

Junior Anthony Postiglione agreed that shifting educational values are a contributing factor to increased Adderall usage.

"I feel like a lot of teachers focus on who gets better grades rather than the actual process of learning it," Postiglione said.

Ethical implications of non-prescribed Adderall usage aside, Kupferer said the biggest concern should be the health risks of abusing a prescription drug.

"(People) start increasing their dosage, and that makes me nervous," Kupferer said. "That was one of the reasons I was hesitant to go on the drug even though it was offered to me by my doctor. It scares me to do anything that alters the chemical structure of your brain. Once you change that, you can't get it back."

Bagby-Stone said misusing Adderall could result in a slew of complications including cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, appetite issues, psychosis and mania.

"(Taking Adderall without a prescription) is never a good idea due to medical dangers," Bagby-Stone said. "It's also illegal and a felony offense. A lot of dangerous things can happen."

Yet within the debate concerning the ethical implications and health complications of misusing Adderall, writer for The Chronicle Matt Lamkin said whether Adderall provides an unfair advantage for non-prescribed users shouldn't be an issue.

"Simply calling the use of study drugs 'unfair' tells us nothing about why colleges should ban them," Lamkin said in the article. "If such drugs really do improve academic performance among healthy students (and the evidence is scant), shouldn't colleges put them in the drinking water instead?"

Restricting Adderall usage is only necessary when health concerns come into play, Lamkin continued.

"That seems like an argument about safety, not fairness," Lamkin said. "While safety is a valid concern, it is one that might be overcome by better drug design. If we are still troubled by the idea of a study drug that is safe and universally available, we have to look for other sources of our discomfort."

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