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Study drugs: Effects of illicit Adderall use at universities

Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are used to treat ADHD. But some students illicitly use them to enhance their focus for studying. | Juana Garcia/The Cougar

Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are used to treat ADHD, but some students illicitly use them to enhance their focus for studying. | Juana Garcia/The Cougar

As exams and assignments start to pile up, students may come across illicit use of ADHD medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin. 

The “study drugs,” as many have called them, have become more prevalent at universities across the country. A study from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry conducted over five years found non-prescribed use of Adderall by young adults went up by 67 percent and associated emergency room visits rose by 156 percent over that span.

Some students said their illegal use of the stimulant is out of fear for their future if they don’t  academically perform well. Experts at UH said that the misuse of the drug on campuses can pose serious dangers. 

“I think people don’t often consider the unwelcome side effects that come with these medications,” said Tyler Varisco, a researcher with the College of Pharmacy.

Seven out of 10 college students who use stimulants without a prescription said the drugs are easy to obtain – mostly from friends, according to a survey conducted by Ohio State University.

One student, who did not want their name revealed, admitted their illicit use of the medication was caused by the pressures of adult and college life. 

“There’s too much at stake for me not to,” they said. “I need this for my future, and when everything is graded on a curve, I need as much help as I can get. I can’t afford to see a doctor about it, and I can worry about everything else later.”

Misuse and overuse can come with some serious health consequences, Varisco said. The drugs may cause people to take other medications for other detrimental side effects.  

 “A lot of people will forget to eat when taking stimulants … I hear from a lot of patients how sleep disturbances are very common,” Varisco said. “These patients will often take additional medication to help sleep.”

Thousands of fake Adderall pills that were comprised of methamphetamine were found in Dec. 2019 during a raid at UTSA, according to ABC13

Students may unknowingly take counterfeit Adderall in some cases, said UHPD Capt. Bret Collier.

“Commonly, the pills are actually caffeine, tramadol, acetaminophen, or even methamphetamine,” Collier said. “They can also have any number of other adulterants, or filler, that be harmful in unexpected ways.”

Addiction is another risk of these study drugs. Co-director of UH’s PREscription Drug MIsuse Education and Research Center Doug Thornton said stimulant use poses significant dangers. 

“Stimulants can be one of the more difficult medications to withdrawal from because your body gets used to having that extra boost,” Thornton said. “There’s a lot of organs that adapt to that additional stimulant. It’s hard to stop both psychologically and physically.”

Stimulant use doesn’t stop after graduation, Varisco said. The researcher said its use can continue on into their professional life. 

“I think starting early, building that tolerance, and continue to escalate dose … it just creates this pattern of misuse and that potentially leads to harm later in life,” Varisco said.

This long-term harm, according to National Institute of Health, most commonly includes high blood pressure and irregular heart rate. 

Decreasing use 

With so many potential consequences, experts at UH offer a few solutions for decreasing illicit stimulant use.

Varisco believes more scrutiny from the Texas State Board of Pharmacy could reduce the amount of medication that’s improperly filled and able to be diverted for illicit uses. 

One UH student admits to selling Adderall to supplement income and said higher standards from doctors on prescribing stimulants would be the biggest incentive to quit selling the medication in excess. 

“Trips to the doctor are expensive and time-consuming,” the student said, who asked for their name to not be revealed. “If getting and re-upping were harder, I wouldn’t be able to sell like I do.”

Vaishnavi Tata, a doctoral student specializing in education and medication at the College of Pharmacy, believes the issue and solution demands a mental health perspective.

She believes the University could better promote Counseling and Psychological Services and help teach students better ways to cope with stress without illicit drug use. The student said mental health checkups could be a vital tool utilized by educators.

“You could sit down with somebody for maybe 30 minutes even,” Tata said. “Just to check up on you and figure out if everything is okay. So, (students) are aware of the services available at least.”

Thornton said our culture plays a role in convincing people they need to misuse prescription drugs to perform better.

“I think we’ve incentivized (the misuse of ADHD Medication) in our society because there are people that believe it doesn’t matter with the long-term risks are,” Thornton said. “I need something to benefit in the short-term.”

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