This research coincides with a rise in students’ illegal Adderall use on many colleges across the country — for both studying and partying. Since many students can obtain it legally through their own prescriptions, the drug is readily accessible.
The stimulant drug Adderall is often prescribed to treat attention disorders like ADHD. But some non-prescribed college students buy it from peers so they can increase productivity and stay awake longer, especially during more academically intense periods of the semester.
“I didn’t have to look around to get [Adderall], I just mentioned it once,” said a UW-Madison sophomore student who wished to remain anonymous. “I honestly probably wouldn’t have done it if it wasn't so accessible to me.”
About 9.4 percent of U.S. children have at some point been diagnosed with ADHD, according to a 2016 CDC survey.
However, since the symptoms of ADHD tend to become less severe with age, some students — who no longer need all of their medication for themselves — choose to sell their pills to peers.
The anonymous source explained they got Adderall from her friend who had a prescription and charged $5 per pill. They have only taken the drug twice, and both times it was while studying for a particularly difficult test.
Some students may be more inclined to illegally use Adderall in comparison to other drugs because they can buy it from a friend. And buying from someone you know raises less concern about the drug being cut with other substances.
“With Adderall, it’s an actual pill and you check the numbers and can verify what type of drug it is,” a fifth-year student anonymously said. “To me, Adderall seemed like a pretty regulated substance with a low risk and high reward.”
Studies show 5 to 35 percent of college students have tried Adderall without a prescription and are twice as likely to use the drug as non-students in their age group.
Effects of Adderall: Use and misuse
Because Adderall is a stimulant, some choose to combine the drug with alcohol in order to feel a stronger effect while drinking.
“Anytime you start combining drugs, you are increasing the risk of having some health problems,” said Professor Craig Berridge, who has done research on the pharmacology of ADHD. “At high doses, psychostimulants are going to impair decision making and other cognitive functions. That’s true with alcohol, too.”
Individuals who take the drug infrequently without a prescription and do not combine it with alcohol are at relatively low risk for physical harm — but taking Adderall in high doses or with other drugs can be dangerous.
“If you take more than someone is prescribed, you’re putting your body at risk for a lot of things, including addiction,” Berridge said.
There are no known consequences for children who take ADHD medication for a prolonged period of time, and it can help curtail the risk of future drug addiction for people with attention disorders and otherwise would be at a higher risk, he said.
While there can be some minor side effects, Adderall is highly effective in treating attention disorders when used properly, Berridge added.
“My mind doesn’t wander as much, and it definitely keeps me awake,” said sophomore Jenna Morris, who takes Adderall with a prescription.
Morris also cautioned users, warning that it can make people anxious, and explained individuals should be careful when they’re on it.
Increasing pressure on college students, increasing Adderall use
The rise in illegal Adderall use may be a consequence of society’s increased emphasis on higher education. The competitive environment of some college campuses may lead some students to feel like they need an extra boost from study drugs to keep up with their peers.
“If a different approach to teaching was taken, students wouldn’t need to one up each other all the time,” the fifth-year student said. “The educational environment is very toxic right now. People aren’t very concerned about mental health.”
With more and more students attending college and coursework growing increasingly rigorous, individuals who may not have previously attended college due to difficulty focusing are using Adderall as a tool for finishing their education, Berridge added.
But because of the limited side effects, some students tend to think taking the drug illegally isn’t a big deal, according to the anonymous sophomore.
She explained she decided to try the drug after other people told her it really helped them focus and only took it occasionally for exams.
“It isn’t hard to find. In classrooms, a lot of people have definitely taken it once or twice,” she said. “It’s a much bigger issue than alcohol and weed.”
All sources agreed there is little the university can do to stop students from selling pills or using the drug without a prescription.
“There are now more adverse consequences associated with those symptoms [of ADHD],” Berridge said. “Society has shifted in a way that those behavioral features are more problematic.”