Making the Grade
Story by Danny Cumming // Photos by Eric Schmitz
Brushing his fingers through his short, copper-orange hair and exhaling deeply, Rogers thought about the daunting task ahead of him and the certain late night it would bring. Expecting to find his roommate in a similar state of deadline-driven panic, he instead found him focused and relaxed, reading on the couch. Rogers' roommate had taken Adderall, a medical amphetamine prescribed to help people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) concentrate. After explaining his predicament, Rogers says his roommate told him taking a pill could help him easily finish cramming for the test. With the pressure of the midterm mounting, Rogers swallowed the small orange capsule as he headed to his room to study.
"I was all by myself without any noise reading an accounting book for six hours," Rogers says. "I didn't talk to anyone the whole time." Rogers says he felt the focus-enhancing effects of the pill all day. Once he finished his studying, Rogers needed more pill assistance to fall asleep, this time coming in the form of standard sleeping pills. After cruising through the test and receiving an A-, Rogers says he has been pro-Adderall ever since.
"If I know I have [Adderall], I'll wait until the last day to study," Rogers says. "It's a good safety net."
Traditionally, college students have relied on many forms of late-night study support. From gulping cups of coffee, swallowing caffeine pills or chain-smoking their way through packs of cigarettes, the use of stimulants on-campus is nothing new. However, the abuse of prescription drugs, such as Adderall, could be more dangerous than traditional study aids.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant which, increases dopamine levels in a user's brain, the chemicals associated with pleasure, movement and attention. Non-prescribed use of stimulants may heighten a users focus and lengthen their attention span, but may also dangerously increase blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, as well as possibly lead to manic psychosis and feelings of paranoia. Adderall can be addictive and increases users' risk of stroke or seizures, and in rare cases of people with heart defects, sudden death.
Despite potential dangers, some students risk the consequences in order to study late into the night. On Western's campus, Rogers believes Adderall use is so common that students have developed a nonchalant attitude toward it.
"All my close friends use it at some point. It's not shocking to anyone to say, 'I was on Adderall yesterday'," Rogers says. "It's not that big a deal."
Dr. Sara Cuene of Western's Student Health Center says the effects of non-prescribed medicine use vary for each user. In addition to cardiovascular and psychological problems, she says she has seen reports of nausea, headaches, nervousness, loss of appetite and hyper-focus among student users.
To help combat prescription drug abuse, the Health Center won't let students fill prescriptions early and prescribes stimulants in smaller doses. The center also tries to prescribe extended-release prescriptions so the medication won't be abused as a short-term studying aid, Dr. Cuene says.
Dr. Cuene says Adderall and other prescribed ADHD medicines are highly beneficial to the students who need them. However, students assume serious health risks by using non-prescribed stimulant drugs.
"We have to be careful in how we look at [Adderall]. It can be good and it can be bad," Dr. Cuene says. "For those that need it, it has tremendous benefits and allows many of them to make it through school."
Non-prescribed Adderall is commonly used around midterms and finals weeks and bought through friends with filled prescriptions, according to current users.
Jake Jones, a senior computer science major, sold >> Adderall while living in the dorms his freshman and sophomore year. After being diagnosed with ADD his junior year of high school, Jones was prescribed Adderall but decided to stop taking it following graduation. Jones says he sold the rest of his pills to get rid of his prescription.
"I sold mostly to people in the dorms in Delta, mostly just neighbors around finals," Jones says. "I wasn't really worried about it. I didn't sell to random people; it was more hooking up a friend than selling." At Western, a 25-milligram pill can cost from $2 to $5, Rogers says, but he's heard of people paying up to $10. Rogers says you can take Adderall in pill or capsule form. Capsules are the preferred form because they can be split open, allowing the user to take less than a full dose, he says.
In 2005, Canada's department of national public health suspended sales of Adderall XR for six months due to 20 international reports of sudden death associated with prescribed use since its release. Investigations determined the deaths to be among users with heart defects.
In 2006, after the recommendation of U.S. federal investigative committees, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) directed manufactures to revise ADHD medication labeling with a warning of abuse potential, adverse psychiatric symptoms, serious cardiovascular events and sudden death.
While on Adderall, Rogers unconsciously clenches his jaw and grinds his teeth so he says he makes sure to chew gum. He says he also forgets to eat and he sweats profusely. The day after taking Adderall, Rogers says he feels uneasy and not like himself.
For Rogers, the positive aspects of Adderall on his grades outweigh the potentially negative health effects. He estimates it has helped his grades by a letter.
"I don't see it as a drug. It's [a performance] enhancement. Like when people take protein powder or pills for lifting weights," Rogers says. Sergeant Claudia Murphy of the Bellingham Police Department has been dealing with Adderall and other prescription abuse in Bellingham since 2000. Sgt. Murphy has seen Adderall abuse not only among college students but also among local high school students for the last eight to 10 years. Sgt. Murphy says Adderall abuse is just a sliver of a larger picture of spiking prescription drug abuse in society. Even with serious penalties associated with illegal prescription drug possession, education needs to be emphasized among users and the doctors prescribing the drugs, Sgt. Murphy says.
According to Washington State's Uniform Controlled Substance Act (RCW 69.50), any person in possession of a controlled substance is guilty of a class C felony and is liable for a five year prison term, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. Sgt. Murphy says actual sentencing usually doesn't amount to the maximum penalties, but the charges stay on a permanent record which may result in more long-term repercussions than fines or jail time. Sgt. Murphy describes the difficultly in finding a job with potential a felony conviction for a controlled substance act violation on an application for employment. Generally, employers assume the charge is related to a far more serious drug than from using Adderall in college, Sgt. Murphy says.
"As an adult, a felony stays on your record forever," Sgt. Murphy says. "A lot of people don't understand that a prescription drug can be a felony. It doesn't have to be heroin or cocaine for it to be serious." Jones says he wasn't worried about any legal troubles when he sold his Adderall. Recalling his experience getting diagnosed with ADHD, he says anyone can get a prescription.
"My parents took me to a specialist. There was only one multiple-choice written test that was kind of random, and a half hour meeting before [the specialist] made the decision," Jones says. "I'm pretty sure if you found the right doctor he would just give it to you. That's all you need, one doctor."
Jones says his parents forced him to get Adderall because they thought he would do better in school, but after consistently taking the drug he always felt nauseous with an upset stomach. Jones doesn't think Adderall helped his grades overall and decided the side effects weren't worth the trade-off.
Rogers says part of the reason he takes Adderall is because he feels pressure from his parents to maintain the good grades he has kept up during his high school and college career.
"I'm trying to maintain [good grades]," Rogers says. "Whether it's a placebo effect or not, [Adderall] helps me maintain and gives me that confidence."
After a reflective pause, Rogers says, "I sometimes feel like it's cheating when you take it because it's such an advantage. You obviously have the upper hand."
On a recent Monday, Rogers used Adderall to help him write a seven-page paper and deliver an in-class speech the same day. Waking up around 10 a.m, he took an Adderall pill he had bought from a friend. Rogers finished his work by the end of the day and then took a sleeping pill to help him fall asleep.
Rogers says he got an A on his speech and believes he did well on the paper. He shrugged after hearing the possible side effects of non-prescribed Adderall use and says he won't hesitate to take Adderall again whenever he needs it.