The high in higher education: students turn to drugs as study aids

Under the pressure of a deadline, a pill of Adderall often looks to Phil* like his only option for success.

“It’s not heroin,” the second-year UBC kinesiology student said of the drug commonly prescribed to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Phil, who is not diagnosed with ADHD, uses Adderall as a study aid instead. “Let’s just say it was last minute, I didn’t study properly. I don’t use it to study all the time. But if I’m really in the need of something that could help me out with cramming, I’ll use it.”

Phil is no oddity. Nearly four per cent of Canadian post-secondary students take such stimulants without a prescription, according to a 2013 study by the United States National College Health Assessment.

The most popular “study drugs” include Adderall — an amphetamine-based medication — and Ritalin — a central nervous system stimulant which works by inducing a buildup of dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter for attention and motivation. Both are commonly used to treat ADHD and must be prescribed by a physician.

Sometimes students will obtain unmarked pills, simply trusting their dealers when they say what they provide is Adderall. Phil described paying $10 for each unmarked pill that he purchased, despite recognizing that the pills were different in appearance from the prescribed Adderall he had taken previously. He was stressed about an upcoming exam for a class that he was barely passing and the pills came from a friend. In the end, he took the chance.

Possessing and using Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription are illegal in Canada, but that isn't stopping students from using them for non-medical reasons. Most students like Phil who use them to study will get them from friends or other students who have prescriptions, paying between $5 and $20 per pill.

What’s the draw?

It’s illegal and expensive, but with the pressure of academics, students continue to seek a leg up on coursework and tests because the drug helps them sustain focus. Phil thought he did much better on the final that he wrote after studying on the unmarked Adderall pill and he’s not the only one to appreciate the drug’s effects.  

“I couldn’t believe how well they work. You sit down and concentrate for eight hours or so without feeling the need for breaks or wanting to stop,” a third-year arts and economics student at McGill University, who used Ritalin, said in an interview for The Globe and Mail.

“My friend has ADHD, but hates taking Adderall because she says it changes her personality, so she sells it for $10 a cap,” Veronica, a second-year Queen’s University student studying global development and environment science, told The Ubyssey. “She actually makes a lot of money around exam time.”

What do universities do about it?

Students at Canadian universities are hardly the only ones taking non-prescribed study drugs. Based on a 2012 survey, researchers at the American Society of Pediatrics estimated that nearly one in five students at an Ivy League university take unprescribed medication to study and a third of these students see no ethical problem with it. A quarter of the students had used study drugs eight times or more. Few universities deal with the issue directly. However, one that does is Duke University in the United States, which has explicitly banned “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” under their policy on academic dishonesty.

But at UBC, although possessing or selling controlled substances is prohibited under the Student Code of Conduct, the use of study drugs specifically is not addressed in the academic misconduct policies.

University administrators were not available to comment on the issue, but UBC Public Affairs responded to The Ubyssey’s questions about how the university views the use of study drugs.

“No cases have ever been brought forward alleging that a student cheated by using unauthorized study drugs … so it is unclear whether the allegation would be accepted and addressed under the academic misconduct process,” Leslie Dickens, associate director of public affairs at UBC, wrote in an email to The Ubyssey.

Confronting study drugs as a form of cheating wouldn’t be straightforward. Dickens noted that it would be difficult to prove if drugs were taken and that, ultimately, the student is not committing plagiarism since they are producing their own work as opposed to using someone else’s.

But the most important consideration in whether study drugs should be dealt with as cheating by the university is whether, and to what extent, study drugs actually improve academic performance.

"There is a widely held perception that taking the drugs is bad whereas coffee is OK. In principle, there's no real difference between the two, except all the evidence is that caffeine is a little more effective than Adderall."

— Peter Reiner, neuroscience professor and neuroethicist

Some students who regularly take study drugs reported to The Ubyssey that they do not help for all types of studying. Veronica, the Queen’s University student, shared her experience of using Adderall to take ineffective notes.

“The next day, I’ll look back on my notes and they are so in depth that they aren’t helpful at all and I hadn’t retained any information as I wrote them,” she explained. “Some people I know take it when they are researching for their papers, but won’t take it to study for exams.”

Adderall users reap the advantages of sustained focus but the drugs do not improve thinking and learning skills.

“It doesn’t make me smarter or able to make connections better or anything like that,” said Michael, a second-year mechanical engineering student at UBC. “But I stuck with and completely zoned in on what I was working on. It allowed me to work for longer without getting bored or distracted.”

Do study drugs work as students think they do?

Leading research on psychostimulants conducted by neuroscientist Martha Farah has found that the cognitive benefits are limited. Instead, researchers propose that the perceived benefits have more to do with motivation as opposed to cognition — users experience elevated alertness, energy and more interest in completing a task, while cognitive skills like processing and manipulating information are not improved in any significant way.

Eric Racine, director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de Recherche Clinique de Montréal, explained that there isn’t enough scientific evidence suggesting that these drugs are “cognitive enhancers” and will not give users an unfair advantage.  

“For those that are fearing widespread use and are fearing potentially to lose a competitive edge, I would probably say don't overworry because, as far as we know from the systematic reviews, the advantages could be very minimal and the effects could be more on motivation than actually on cognition,” said Racine.

If a boost in motivation and energy is all Adderall users can expect to gain, using study drugs can be considered similar to drinking coffee — save that the drugs are illegal and riskier. "There's a sense in which using drugs is a shortcut to success. But caffeine is a drug. It's the most widely used drug on the planet," said Peter Reiner, a neuroscience professor and scholar in neuroethics at UBC. 

"There is a widely held perception that taking the drugs is bad whereas coffee is OK," he added. "In principle, there's no real difference between the two, except all the evidence is that caffeine is a little more effective than Adderall."

No effects without side effects

Still, students continue to risk dangerous side effects in favour of the stimulating Adderall effect. Restlessness, difficulty falling or staying asleep, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body and headaches are risks that can go hand in hand with the concentration boost. More severe side effects can include shortness of breath, chest pain, mild paranoia and delusions. Reiner said there is no way to predict how any individual will react to the drugs.

“I would breathe and my right lung would just kind of hurt, and then … my heart was, like, palpitating,” acknowledged Phil. But he doesn't see these side effects as a great deterrent to his study drug usage. “It’s all about the way you look at it. My way of looking at it was, ‘Hey, I really need this.’”

Michael also experienced side effects after taking an unmarked pill that his dealer claimed was Adderall. “I had really vivid, frightening dreams,” he said. “To me, it seems like something that doesn’t make sense to be used so casually.” 

The full extent of the drugs’ consequences are still unclear even to researchers. “We don't know neither the long-term nor the short-term effects because there have been no real studies of the population of people without a prescription,” Reiner said. “It's kind of a black hole in our knowledge.”

Are the risks worth it?

Shira Sneg, a fifth-year UBCO student, student senator and leader of several mental health initiatives, is diagnosed with ADHD and admits she is uncomfortable with the idea that healthy students feel the need to take drugs designed to treat her condition to help their studying.

“What it points at is the pressure of what it’s like to be a student today and what’s demanded of you,” she said, faulting the expectation that university students will not only have good grades, but participate extra-curricular activities and demonstrate that they are well-rounded. The solution to academic pressure, she believes, is improving mental health rather than ADHD drugs.

My way of looking at it was, ‘Hey, I really need this.’

— second-year kinesiology student

Reiner notes that the use of study drugs plays into the strong societal expectations felt by students to do well academically.

“There is a concern that we are already, as a society, putting too much of an emphasis on success of various kinds and that the pressure to succeed is not improving the quality of our lives,” said Reiner. “There is a reasonable argument that adding cognitive enhancers into the mix will only exacerbate that pressure on us all to succeed.”

Most students have trouble concentrating while studying throughout their hectic academic careers. So when the advantages enjoyed by those using Adderall are pitted against students relying on self-discipline alone, the competition can seem dauntingly uneven. Not everyone can, or is willing to, access the drug’s benefits.

When in dire need of a concentration boost in order to study, Phil will take an Adderall pill. He acknowledges the associated downsides — he even experiences some of them himself — but “a whole bunch of people are doing it, a bunch of people are selling it.” If UBC does not view it as cheating, it begs the question — why not?

*The names of the students who shared their experiences of using study drugs without prescriptions have been changed.