November 9, 2014

Adderall Use at Cornell: A Way of Life for Some

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Correction appended

Editor’s note: Because using Adderall without a prescription and distributing the drug without a license is illegal, the names of students interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their anonymity. ­­

Matt stared at the small, oval-shaped pill in his palm, having promised himself he would never resort to this.

It was 7:45 p.m. on a Sunday night, and he had a six-page paper and a computer science project — none of which he had started — all due the next day. His best friend had always raved about how much these pills helped him focus, so Matt had bought one off him for $5. After a deep breath, Matt swallowed the pill before he could change his mind.

At Cornell, some students who want to accomplish a large amount of work in a short amount of time or stay awake turn to Adderall — commonly referred to as “addy” — a prescription stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Lacking prescriptions for the drugs, these students often get them from friends who have obtained ADHD diagnoses and Adderall prescriptions.

Although the practice is illegal, 6.7 percent of Cornell students reported having used a prescription stimulant without a prescription in order to “enhance academic performance,” with 4.6 percent saying they had done so during the 2012-13 academic year, according to data from the Fall 2013 Alcohol and Social Life Survey.

Buying ‘More Time’

For some, using Adderall has become a lifestyle that students say provides them with a competitive edge.

“I felt like my work had to be perfect. I was in the zone; I was wired like no other,” Matt said. “At one point I was doing a group project, and I was getting mad that we weren’t working fast enough.”

Adderall also “provides a significant advantage in terms of the amount of stuff that you can do in a day,” according to Scott, a computer science major.

“I can’t just sit at my computer and code for six hours straight on things that I want to do [without Adderall,] so taking it helps me stay up and running and [functioning] on very little sleep,” Scott said. “And then I catch up on sleep on the weekends.”

For others, however, Adderall allows its users to keep up with the workload at Cornell. James said that he uses the prescription drug to “buy more time.”

“I literally would have gotten a zero,” he said of a test for which he took Adderall to study. “It kept me up all night and I studied the entire book. I went from knowing nothing to getting an A.”

Risks, Dependence and Side Effects

Despite all the purported benefits, taking Adderall or other stimulants unprescribed comes with a great deal of risk. There are several possible side effects: heart palpitations, an increase in blood pressure, muscle twitching, tremors, seizures, headaches and insomnia are just some of many, according to Laura Santacrose, health initiatives coordinator for Gannett Health Services.

Adderall works by stimulating the central nervous system, allowing the user to focus and stay awake, and is a Schedule 2 drug, having “a high propensity for use, misuse and dependence,” Santacrose added.

Another risk of taking Adderall without a prescription is that students do not know what dosage they should be taking, according to Santacrose.

“Over time you need a higher dose because your body adjusts. What might be appropriate for one person who has been taking it for a long time, might not be for someone who’s never had it before,” she said. “And without having that consultation with a provider, you miss out on the opportunity to have the conversation about possible dependence.”

Santacrose added that students also cannot predict how the Adderall might interact with other medications or drugs that they are taking.

Leah, who took Vyvanse, a stimulant similar to Adderall that is also used to treat ADHD, said she took 150 milligrams over the course of two days. The standard dose for a first-time user is 30 milligrams, according to clinical studies.

“I needed to pass my multivariable calculus final, and I hadn’t gone to any of the lectures. I stayed awake for 72 hours. I started convulsing, and I was shaking and nauseous at the end. Afterwards, I fell asleep for a solid 24 hours,” Leah said.

“I won’t be doing Vyvanse again. I passed my final though, so that’s all that counts,” she added.

In addition to all the health hazards, another risk with Adderall is that the user will become fixated on the wrong task, according to Santacrose.

“There’s no guarantee when you take it that you will focus on your studies. Whatever people find first, they will focus on that. One person took it because they wanted to write a paper, but they spent all the time on researching rather than writing,” she said. “It’s not the number of hours [that matters], but how you use that time.”

Echoing that sentiment, Sophia said the first time she tried Adderall, it “wasn’t actually helpful.”

“I actually spent a lot of the time watching makeup tutorials on YouTube because I got so focused on them,” she said.

Overestimated Usage

Overall, however, students overestimate the amount of Adderall use on campus, according to Santacrose, who added that overall usage of unprescribed Adderall on campus is “very low.”

“There are pockets of high use among certain social groups, which can make students believe the prevalence is higher, if they’re hearing it in their own social pocket,” she said.

Two examples of the high-use groups are white male students with lower GPAs, as well as students who have a history of drug and alcohol use, Santacrose said.

According to the Spring 2013 Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences survey, students in the School of Hotel Administration have reported a higher usage rate than students in other schools: 10.3 percent of hotel student respondents said they had used unprescribed stimulants to enhance academic performance in the past year. The College of Engineering and the College of Human Ecology had the lowest reported use rates, 3.7 percent and 4.3 percent respectively.

Students involved in Greek life on campus are also much more likely to use Adderall and other stimulants unprescribed — 9.6 percent of Greek respondents reported doing so in the past year, as opposed to only 3 percent of non-Greek respondents, according to the survey.

Leah, who is in a sorority, said she feels there is a “higher proportion of Greek students” that take stimulants unprescribed.

“You tend to be focused on [Greek life] and then finals come around and you’re screwed,” she said.

Andrew said that his ex-girlfriend sold Adderall “mainly to sorority girls” for “obscene amounts of money.”

“Lots of people came to her because they had heard about her. She was making bank — hundreds of dollars per month,” he said.

Severe Punishments

For students who sell or use Adderall or other stimulants illegally, the punishments can be severe. Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88 said sanctions “depend on individual circumstances,” but selling would likely result in a suspension or expulsion.

“Even using could result in a suspension or expulsion under some circumstances,” Grant said.

Despite the possible consequences, several students have said obtaining Adderall without a prescription is easy and inexpensive. Scott, who buys Adderall from his friends and has taken it every weekday since the beginning of the semester, described it as “relatively cheap.”

“You can definitely get an entire semester’s supply for less than that of a parking spot at Cornell. It’s like the price of two textbooks,” he said.

James, who has used Adderall unprescribed about five times, said he always has friends within a close distance from whom he can buy whenever he needs, for as little as $5 per dosage.

“It’s ridiculously over-prescribed. A ton of people have it who don’t need it,” he said.

Last year, Gannett filled over 1,700 prescriptions — which does not translate to 1,700 patients — for ADHD medications such as Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, according to Tracey DeNardo, head pharmacist for Gannett.

The State of New York has a computer system that allows pharmacies to ensure patients do not buy more than their prescribed dosage of ADHD medications, according to DeNardo.

“ADHD prescriptions can only be filled for a 30 day supply, so the pharmacist must log into a special New York State system to see if or when the patient has taken similar medications. If it’s too soon to refill the prescription, or if there are any other problems, then the pharmacist will contact the prescribing clinician,” DeNardo said.

Still, Andrew, whose ex-girlfriend sells Adderall, said he thinks people with ADHD can afford to part with so much of their medicine because prescriptions come with more medication than necessary.

“They give you a ridiculous amount of medicine — way more than you need,” he said.

‘I Never Worry About Getting in Trouble’

Despite the risk of suspension or expulsion, students have said that they are not worried about getting caught because they claim there is no way for administrators or police to know if someone has taken Adderall unprescribed.

Matt said that the first time he tried Adderall, he “knew nothing was going to happen” in terms of getting in trouble.

“The second the pill is in my body, it would be unreasonable search and seizure if the police were to drug test me. Unless I’m driving or causing trouble, they would have no reason to believe I was on anything,” he said.

Scott said that the only situation he “could possibly foresee” for getting caught would be if he got pulled over and the police searched his car.

“That’s an unrealistic thing. There’d be no reason for a cop to ever search my car or my bag,” he said. “I never worry about getting in trouble. The way it’s done, it would never happen.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that data regarding the number of students in each college claiming to have used unprescribed stimulants in the past year was from the Fall 2013 Alcohol and Social Life Survey. In fact, the data was from the Spring 2013 Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences survey.