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Health | Risking addiction, healthy students use ADHD drugs for that exam-time edge

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

The first time he used Adderall, it turned him from a freshman procrastinator into a study hound. And that's just what he was looking for. Justin-not his real name-got the pill from his University of Texas roommate, who sold his surplus Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medication to other students for a small fee.

Justin had an end-of-term paper due the next day on a book he hadn't even cracked. "My roommate was like, 'Take this and see if it works for you,'" Justin said. He said he sat down to read a 200-page book on the history and significance of the Erie Canal.

The first 20 pages were normal: "Suddenly I was very engrossed and I just read the whole book." Powered by ADHD medication, he didn't just read the whole book; he did it without even getting up from his chair, leaving sweat marks in the seat. "If I thought I missed something, I would go back and reread it. My mindset was that I wanted to know everything about the Erie Canal. I was thinking about even doing some further research after finishing this book because I found it so interesting." For Justin, that was the power of Adderall. It even made the history of the Erie Canal interesting to a college freshman.

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Adderall is designed to help people who have ADHD concentrate. But what happens when people without concentration problems take a drug that aids the ability to focus? Students like Justin say taking Adderall or other ADHD drugs when you have no medical need gives you up to eight hours of intense concentration. The result is a pill that can turn the average student into a binge studier; the perfect pill for the overachiever-the drug of choice for both the nerdy elite and the procrastinator alike.

According to Erin English, a drug and alcohol abuse expert with the University of Georgia health center, the drugs are a way of life for many students. "It's much more common than people think. It's so easy to get," she said. "And it's less stigmatized than other drugs." She said that because the psychostimulant is prescribed to so many people, many students regard it as a safe drug-"Like a very strong caffeine," she said. But like other amphetamines, Adderall is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, putting it in the same legal classification as cocaine, oxycodone and opium. And mixed with other prescriptions or with alcohol, Adderall can have strong-even fatal-side effects. And even taken alone, she suggests there's a possibility of at least psychological addiction in students who feel they need a few 20-milligram pills every time a test or paper looms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate nearly 8 percent of school-age children are diagnosed with ADHD. IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information and consulting company, estimates nearly 32 million Americans, both children and adults, were prescribed ADHD medication in 2005. While nationwide studies are hard to find, individual universities have conducted research that reveals abuse of ADHD drugs-especially Adderall-on college campuses. A survey of University of Wisconsin students revealed 14 percent took Adderall without a prescription and nearly one in five had abused ADHD medication. A University of Indiana study reported that 7 percent of high-school seniors had taken drugs like Adderall and Ritalin without a prescription. The number jumped to 16 percent among college students.

Patrick, an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, thinks those numbers are conservative. "Everybody knows a friend who takes it. So you just ask your friends if you can get a pill for a few dollars," he said, noting he first took Adderall as a study aid when he was falling behind in classes at a prestigious prep school in the Southeast. "Everybody was asking for Adderall around exam times-over half of the student body."

Patrick said he still uses the prescription drugs to help him keep his grades up while at Georgia. "I definitely think that taking the pills has improved my grades. I see it as a positive drug in that way," Patrick said. "You might crash the next day, but if other people are getting these competitive advantages, I feel like I can too. . . . It may be selfish, but it's my grades."

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