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Efficient or Addicted? The Use of Study Drugs

By: Carol Morriscey

The Spread of Study Drugs on University Campuses

As stress mounts, university students turn to study drugs to give them an academic edge. However, the risks are often neglected leading to a danger of addiction. As mid-term season approaches and students prepare graduate school applications, many seek an extra boost for their academics. When stress is high and time is short, a portion of students turn to “Study Drugs” such as Adderall or Ritalin to get an extra edge, and finish assignments in a timely manner. These drugs are easy to find on university campuses, as students who have legitimate prescriptions for their ADHD commonly divert the drugs to their desperate classmates.

Who Uses Study Drugs

A significant portion of Canadian university students, estimated to be from 3-11%, are abusing study drugs. This represents a huge portion of the total illicit drug use in university, falling only behind the rates of marijuana use. According to research, the profile of a typical study drug user is a B-average student, who maintains extracurricular activities and seeks to complete assignments quickly and study in an efficient manner. These students are most likely to try study drugs for the first time during exam season, when stress is high. Students gain access to these prescription stimulants either online or from family members and friends that have a prescription. In fact, 70% of the study drugs which are abused have been diverted from a legitimate prescription.

The Risks of Study Drugs and Drug Addiction

Given the rates of use across university campuses, it may be expected that these so called study drugs would have a significant impact on efficiency and quality of work. However, there is very little evidence to demonstrate such cognitive enhancements in individuals without an ADHD diagnosis.

Unfortunately, along with the misperception that these drugs are effective in enhancing cognitive functions is the misconception that they are relatively risk free, especially compared to certain street drugs. Sadly, this is far from true. Prescription stimulants have many of the same effects as illicit stimulants, and are associated with similar risks. For example, use is associated with insomnia, psychosis, and nervousness. Large doses of the drugs may lead to cardiovascular events, seizures, and even death.

Even the “come down” from these drugs can be extremely uncomfortable. Depression and exhaustion are likely to result, as the drug is removed from the body. There is relatively little research investigating the long-term effects of prescription stimulant use, presenting the possibility of insidious consequences for students who abuse study drugs.

Finally, due to their stimulant properties, study drugs are extremely addictive. Study Drugs work by raising levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine in implicated in the effects of many addictive street drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine. Indeed, once a student tries to stop using study drugs, their brain may no longer produce normal levels of dopamine. As a result, there are withdrawal symptoms associated with study drugs. These symptoms may include lethargy, depression, and intense drug craving.

Although students may perceive these drugs as harmless, there are many negative side effects and relatively few benefits. When pressed for time, alternatives for increasing efficiencies should be sought, such as exercise and study buddies. When considering study drugs, it appears that the result may be addiction, not efficiency.

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National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers International Security for Traumatic Stress Studies The Canadian Positive Psychology Association The Association for Addiction Professionals