It was several days before spring break, right in the middle of prelim season — a stressful time that forces many Cornellians to resort to all-night study sessions and drastic measures to stay awake.
Henry ’14 was no exception. Henry, a biology major on the pre-med track, was finishing a “hell week” in terms of schoolwork: He had just completed two exams and was facing a difficult organic chemistry prelim for which he said he did not have “sufficient time” to prepare.
Henry turned to what he and many others consider a “popular trend on campus”: study drug use. In the five days leading up to the exam, Henry repeatedly took 10-milligram doses of Adderall to help him focus on his studies –– a decision he said allowed the information he needed to cram “come much more easily.”
“When I was on [Adderall], I felt a lot of energy and … I was really able to focus,” said Henry, who along with other students quoted in this story as using drugs, had his name changed for fear of legal recourse. “All the information I was processing made a lot of sense, much more sense.”
Henry also said he believes Adderall made the material he was struggling to learn “more interesting.”
“Everything was fascinating,” Henry said. “The material that I struggled to get through previously … I now understood … I was enjoying myself. I spent eight hours in the library and it was the greatest time of my week.”
Other students echoed Henry’s sentiments, saying that despite their illegality and adverse health effects, use of study drugs is not unethical.
“It’s less unethical to take Adderall to study than to blow cocaine to have a good time,” he said.
The “study drugs” phenomenon –– which refers to the illegal use of non-prescribed prescription drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, to enhance concentration for academic purposes –– became popular, particularly among college students, around 10 to 15 years ago, according to officials from Gannett Health Services.
While Gannett officials said they have not observed a significant increase in the use of study drugs at Cornell in the past 10 to 15 years, they said these drugs have been a “consistent presence” on campus, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett.
In addition to criticizing study drug usage on the basis of the medical risks it poses for students, Dittman also questioned the ethical implications of taking these drugs.
“It’s not the shortcut,” Dittman said. “It’s about not taking ownership for a problem.”
Still, Henry said that the academic pressures he faces at Cornell justify his usage of study drugs.
“I was doing it to … help myself succeed,” he said. “[Cornell is] such a competitive culture [that] you feel the need to do whatever you have to get ahead, to stay ahead.”
Henry added that he thought the benefits of taking study drugs outweighed the perceived negative moral implications of taking the drugs.
Hillary ’13, who said she uses Vyvanse –– a drug that is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder –– several times per semester, said she does not believe study drug usage is unethical, comparing it to “drinking five Mountain Dews.”
“I think it’s completely convoluted that people are looking from study drugs from an ethical standpoint,” she said. “It doesn’t give you any intrinsic academic advantage. I think it would be pretty magical if it could actually make you any smarter.”
Claire ’14, who said she is an “occasional Adderall user,” also said she did not believe study drug usage is “morally wrong.”
“I felt great, I learned the material much better, so I figured why not?” she said. “Why go back to doing things the old way?”
Despite the fact that many students consider it an effective study tool, Gannett officials said that study drug usage is not a widespread phenomenon on campus.
According to a survey put out by the American College Health Association in the spring of 2010, only 3.7 percent of Cornell students admitted to having used a non-prescribed drug, with the specific purpose of enhancing academic performance, in the past year.
Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services for Gannett, said that “there’s no reason for [participants] not to be” honest when filling out the survey.
Despite their perceived popularity, Eells said the efficacy of study drugs is debatable. He suggested that there was a placebo effect associated with the drugs — people often believe the drugs have helped them become more academically successful because they expected that result before they took the drug, he said.
“The expectancy of the drug has a huge impact on how people experience it,” Eells said.
Aidan ’14 said that his experience taking Focalin –– which also normally treats ADHD symptoms –– helped him gain “immense concentration,” which he said he “wasted because I just watched Taekwondo videos for about four hours.”
“It was like drinking a lot of coffee … but without the jitters,” Aidan said. “It’s not that [the drugs] didn't work … I just gravitated toward what I thought was more interesting at the time.”
Dave ’12, who said he uses Adderall in desperate academic situations, echoed this sentiment.
“On Adderall, you’re more calm and concentrated than if you just drink coffee,” he said. “But if you’re procrastinating, you’ll procrastinate for six hours.”
Dittman also questioned whether study drug use allows students to truly benefit from their Cornell educations.
“Is it an education where you’re really invested in your own learning or preparation, or is it performance?” Dittman said. “This is a real discussion for all of higher ed.”
However, Hillary justified her study drug usage, saying she takes Vyvanse only during “crunch time”: when she is forced to pull all-nighters to complete schoolwork.
“It gives you the illusion that you’re in a good mood and you’re energetic, when it’s five in the morning and you should feel like shit,” she said.