The Missing Dialogue on Study Drugs

The Missing Dialogue on Study Drugs

It was just whenever I had an essay to write, and then eventually, whenever I had a lot of reading to do, and then whenever I had ANY reading to do, and so on…

So begins addiction. Adderall: stimulant, amphetamine, success in a pill. One of the better known of a plethora of study drugs. Some notable risks of abuse: seizures, hypertension, stroke, heart attack, psychosis, aggressive behavior, sudden death. Information you can find with a cursory google search;  facts that most users have heard countless times. Maybe they’ve even heard the stories of people for whom a coping habit became a death sentence. This is not a useful lens to look at drug use through: the information age is swiftly teaching us how futile it is to sermonize about the dangers of drug use, and how misguided the assumption of a moral failing is.

It’s easy to trace the rise of the legal use of Adderall. In America prescriptions for those between the ages of 20-39 increased from 5.6 million in 2007 to 14 million in 2011. A portion of that increase is due to more kids being diagnosed with ADHD in school, but a bulk is accounted by students obtaining a prescription after entering college. Of course, these numbers only reflect legal use, which is just the tip of the iceberg. While the ‘dealers’ I interviewed declined to be directly quoted , it took under half an hour to get the numbers of five contacts. All but one of them had prescriptions, and how much of said prescription they were using themselves is unknown.

 Most of the time I can get Vyvanse, or Adderall when I need it. Around exam time prices go up- a friend of mine triples his price around exams; there’s just less around. Probably because the people with prescriptions start taking it, people without prescriptions want more of it

As with most psychological medication it takes a little while to work out what dosage of a given drug is right for a person. This process relies on trust between the doctor and the patient. However, selling your prescription can be lucrative, a fact that is especially attractive to many cash-strapped students. So why would you complain if you were over-prescribed? You wouldn’t.

Yes, there are arguments about morality, about perpetuating a system that’s spinning out of control. But those arguments all start from the premise that selling drugs- no matter what- is necessarily a morally reprehensible thing. Putting stigma and the ensuing judgement aside, one could argue that study drug dealers are simply providing a service. They are not selling heroin, or cocaine. They are not selling recreation- a good time. They are selling a method of coping- and I am not saying it’s a good way of coping, but it is a way. Most of the people I interviewed had been diagnosed with ADHD. Those that did not have prescriptions had not got them for various reasons: accessibility, pill free families, fear of stigma, parents don’t believe in mental illness, cultural norms, or just they were coping just fine up until university. Thus a significant portion of the illegal consumption appears to be for legitimate therapeutic needs. This is, again, not the whole story though.

Q – What prompted this prescription?

A – An ADHD diagnosis 6-7 years prior that had hitherto gone unmedicated. But I’d been taking friends’ adderall before my prescription explicitly for binge essay-writing for a year or two. It wasn’t like “yes, I’ll finally properly treat my ADHD,” it was more like “I have an excuse to get easy access to study drugs that I’m going to use as such.”

Some people just want further advantages: you can always work harder. This raises the question of the line between therapeutic use and abuse; a line that is meant to be drawn by medical and psychological professionals but, increasingly, is becoming up to the individual. The system- and every interviewee agreed on this- can be gamed. There are people out there who have prescription who probably don’t really need them. However, my conversations with a variety of users and dealers tell me that these cases are minority. Try as I might , I was unable to find someone who would admit they had gamed the system.

“I know people who can study for nine, ten hours, but take ritalin to pull all nighters”

Just because they are therapeutic does not change the fact that study drugs are addictive. Their use and misuse can have dire consequences. One the interviewees- who had quit Adderall at the time of the interview wrote (via e-mail)

Q – How did you identify this overuse?

A – when I realized I was really underweight and wasn’t even functional enough without adderall to soberly do my dishes. Like I was under 100 lbs. Granted I’m usually only 115. I think I hid how little I ate while I was taking it, though, cause it scared even me. Lived off coffee and cigarettes. It’s easier to see it as a problem and understand the timeline of events from this side of things. your tolerance for amphetamines goes up incredibly fast.

Not being able to do simple household chores sober came up in several of the interviews. Study drug addictions can make it nigh impossible to motivate yourself sober. Withdrawal comes with depression and a lack of motivation, which can take several weeks to pass for heavy users. Going cold turkey can be particularly dangerous for those suffering from pre-existing depression.

 The weight loss aspect of study drug use does raise the question of the relationship between study drugs use and body image. While the interviewee in question was uncomfortable with the weight loss; there are people for who that’s just another selling point. The danger of self-medicating is that you may be feeding your demons as well as placating your angels.

This is addiction. To understand addiction you have to understand the story from start, to end.

Study drugs seem to follow the pattern of most addictive drug use: it starts socially. Only one of the interviewees eschewed this trend- they got their prescription to increase work productivity so that they could get higher pay at their job. The rest started with friends. The same story again, and again: you start by taking an Adderall and studying with friends- for an exam, or a paper. Adderall gets normalized, mundane, and eventually you’re popping one whenever you study. Very rapidly it stops mattering whether your friends are doing it or not. The next step in the addiction ladder is doing it alone, and before you know it you can’t read anything without it, and then you wake up one morning and realize you just don’t have the willpower to tackle that mountain of dishes sober. So you take an Adderall.

The one person who did not fit this pattern manages their intake of ritalin:

 I try and keep my usage down to avoid addiction; I take it the most in exam period.

However, they sought out a prescription for work purposes:

At work I would have high productivity at the beginning of the day- they logged productivity scores- by the end of the day, however, I would be moving at a snail’s pace. Ritalin helped me sustain my productivity

We have arrived at the core of why people take study drugs: they don’t make you smarter, they make you concentrate for longer. They let you focus for ten hours without getting hungry, and without getting particularly distracted. They let you be the best version of yourself, given the institutional framework you are in. When your future hinges on a series of arbitrary exams worth 70% of your grade, for which you need to know an entire textbook’s worth of information, you can be forgiven for doing anything and everything you can do to optimize your chances. Yes, there are those that succeed without the use of study drugs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are any smarter. They just have more focus and willpower at this stage in their lives. If the only point of university was to test whether people could concentrate, then that would be a valid argument. A person might argue that the format of our courses requires us to develop time management skills, but I would argue that there are limits to these skills and efficiency does not create the best possible work, nor does it necessarily breed brilliance. The dramatic increase in the use of study drugs is a symptom of a broken system that tests for the wrong things in the wrong way. After all, how many of you remember a significant portion of the material you learn for finals?

In light of this, you may still consider study drugs as cheating the system, but for some people these little pills seem like the only way of securing the future they want. Just because some people are succeeding without them does not prove their usage as immoral. To paraphrase Krishnamurti: it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly broken system – just because some people are flourishing does not mean the system is working. Every single person I interviewed had usage patterns that gravitated around their courses evaluations – the weighting, timing and length of the assignments one must complete to receive credit.

Universities must be open to radical restructuring of courses and evaluation methods to discourage first use: no first use, no addiction. There is undeniably a link between unreasonable demands being placed on students, and their turning to artificial methods of coping. Perhaps the problem lies in the atmosphere of cutthroat competition in many universities. This is not to deny students’ responsibilities towards themselves and their choices. I would simply like to propose that in order to solve this particular problem, a proper dialogue, rather than dismissive judgement, is necessary.

Written by Nathaniel McKenzie