Illicit use of Adderall plagues college campuses

Photo: Kaydee Miller

Prescription drugs such as Adderall are often abused as study tools - often without regard for the dangers they pose.

By Dakota Miller, Staff Writer

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Throughout teens’ lives, parents, teachers and the media warn them of the danger of illicit drugs. But while many realize that illicit drugs are a problem, the dangers of prescription drugs are often overlooked.

In the past few years, Adderall, a prescription medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has been gaining popularity on college campuses – though this popularity is for the abuse of the drug. It is known to some as “college crack,” the “cognitive steroid” or simply as “Addy.” It has been used by those without ADHD as a way to focus in class, as a sort of mental steroid and simply as a way to get high. 

What is Adderall?

Adderall is commonly used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, which causes the sufferer to fall asleep without warning. Adderall is a stimulant that causes the central nervous system to speed up. This makes the user’s surroundings appear to move slower, an effect that attracts students looking for a way to focus.

Beth Duvall, a doctor at Internal Medicine and Pediatrics in Centerville, has experience with prescribing medicine for attention-deficit problems. “I do prescribe Adderall, mostly to school-age children for ADD or ADHD. Typically, it requires meeting a set of criteria to make the diagnosis and close follow-ups to assure proper results and no side effects,” she said.

Students without attention disorders, however, often don’t realize that taking the drug could have consequences. The FDA classifies Adderall as a habit-forming drug, meaning it can easily cause an addiction. Furthermore, WebMD says that misuse or abuse of amphetamines such as Adderall may result in serious or possibly fatal heart and blood pressure problems.

Pinpointing the abuse

Duvall believes drug abuse in general starts in the doctor’s office, with both patient and doctor often thinking about a prescription at the end of their visit. “If you ask me, prescription drugs are a bit over-prescribed, but I feel both parties of patient and physician are at fault,” she said. “Patients have come to expect a prescription if they are seeing the doctor, and the doctors often prescribe based on these expectations. I mean, who really wants to spend $20 just to be told that it’s just a cold and to keep doing what they’re doing?”

Duvall also knows some users who seek out these medications. “Doctors try to do the right thing and try not to suspect a patient of being an abuser or seller of drugs,” she said. “I know of some ER doctors who are very keen on looking out for repeat visitors who are looking for pain meds, and there has been a statewide database established to track them to help cut down on the abuse.”

But inevitably, many get away with abuse. Determining how many students abuse Adderall and similar drugs is next to impossible. “It’s hard to say just how much abuse is happening,” said Fairmont High School Nurse Kathy Thomas. “It’s definitely out there, though. College students continue to abuse Adderall as a hangover cure or study aid.”

Duvall hopes this abuse isn’t as prominent as people think. “It probably happens more than I think it does,” she said. “I’m more of an idealist than a realist at times, but I certainly hope that my patients are doing the right thing and not abusing or selling drugs.”

Prescription drug abuse plagues some college campuses, but Thomas believes that Fairmont has done a good job of keeping it to a minimum through the help of the local police and the drug dog searches. “It does happen occasionally here, but the administration does a good job in not letting it happen. We do a pretty good job here.”

Other risky behavior

Several recent studies show that students who abuse Adderall appear to be the type of people who engage in other risky behavior.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines nonmedical use of a drug as taking it without a prescription, specifically for the effect that the drug creates. A SAMHSA study showed that full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 who abused Adderall were incredibly more likely to use marijuana as compared to non-users or those who used Adderall with a prescription, a difference of 79.9 percent to 27.2 percent.

The study also showed that nearly 90 percent of students who recently used Adderall nonmedically had engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and more than half used alcohol heavily and regularly. Furthermore, these students were eight times more likely to use cocaine than those who didn’t use Adderall (28.9 vs. 3.6 percent), eight times more likely to use prescription tranquilizers nonmedically (24.5 vs. 3 percent), and five times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers (44.9 vs. 8.7 percent).

Alarmingly, another recent study shows the abuse of prescription drugs is not limited to college students but begins as early as the middle school years. The Office of National Drug Control Policy states that “among young people ages 12-17, prescription drugs have become the second most abused illegal drug, behind marijuana.” Proving that the danger lies not just in illegal highs, the study also found that almost all of the poisoning deaths from 1999-2004 were caused by these types of drugs as the death toll from those drugs rose from 12,186 in 1999 to 20,950 in 2004.

Duvall believes she knows why people who would never think of taking illicit drugs sometimes end up abusing prescription drugs. “I think that there’s perhaps a perceived ‘safety’ in prescription drugs, as they’re more pure and unaltered versus a street drug that may be contaminated or ‘cut’ with something,” she said. “However, both carry the same risk of overdose or side effects that can be life threatening, like heart attacks with Adderall or Ritalin.”

Duvall has had patients with issues with drugs. She often hears first-hand accounts of abuse of alcohol, illegal drugs such as heroin, or even legal medications such as Xanax or pain medications. “It’s often the people I never would have expected to have an addiction,” she said.

Avoiding the addiction trap — and getting free

Duvall warns against the danger of just quitting “cold turkey,” however. “Addictions are often very serious, and going ‘cold turkey’ can be fatal in some cases,” she said. “What’s unfortunate is treatment is often not readily available or not covered by private insurance.”

Fairmont sophomore Shannon Brown takes prescription medications for pain from an old leg injury. “I only take about one a day,” she said. “But about twice a year or so, I’ll take more than that for injuries or something.”

Being familiar with these medications and their possible misuse, Brown makes sure she takes steps to avoid getting addicted. “It’s mostly the knowledge that they’re not there to be abused that helps,” she said. “When I can take the pain without using pills, I just stop taking them, even if I have half of the prescription left. I just take them back to the pharmacy to be recycled.”

Brown also has experienced the pressure to give out these medications to others.

“Usually, it’s just kind of sarcastic, something like, ‘Oh, hey, you’re taking Vicodin. Want to share?’” she said. But Brown doesn’t want to get her friends or herself in trouble, since the use or giving out of prescription drugs without a prescription is a felony. “It’s a nasty habit to get into, and I don’t want to get into that.”