Illicit 'Study Drugs' Tempting More Students

ByABC News

June 2, 2005 -- -- Maggie is an "A" student at a top university -- highly motivated and determined to do well.

But when she recently allowed "Primetime Live" cameras to follow her during finals week, she asked not to have her real name or the school she was attending identified.

That's because Maggie is part of a fast-growing college subculture of study drugs -- hardcore prescription medications that give students hours and hours of almost superhuman focus and concentration.

"It just really makes me feel confident and peaceful with my studies and helps me retain the information that I am learning," she said.

The drugs are actually prescription medications like Ritalin and Adderall -- used to help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder calm down and concentrate.

But the problem is, kids without disorders say they figured out the drugs affect them as well, to a radical degree.

They're "performance enhancing drugs, almost like academic steroids," said Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, head of psychiatry for the University of Wisconsin health services.

However, they come with dangers too. Heiligenstein says study drugs basically work like speed, with a powerful effect on the central nervous system. Adderall is essentially an amphetamine and Ritalin is an amphetamine-like substance. Even a normal dose can last 24 hours.

Kids who take the drugs report a buzzing sensation at first, then dry mouth, sometimes a loss of appetite -- but more than anything else, they feel they can study forever.

Maggie says the drugs give her an edge to keep her grades up. "I think that that psychology permeates through the entire library," she told "Primetime Live." "You can be here and you know, it's very open to talk and exchange about study drugs."

Some kids say it's easy to get a prescription after a brief consultation with a doctor.

One student named Brandon said all he had to do was fill out a true-false questionnaire of five to 10 questions. "Marked all of 10 of them true, and was prescribed," he said.

Others don't even go to the doctor to get the pills. A student named Jessica said, "During finals time I've seen it being sold for like nine or 10 dollars for a pill because it's just such a hot commodity and everybody wants it."

Heiligenstein said he is worried by the students' sense of normalcy around these drugs. "I have never encountered in my entire career in medicine," he said.

He said he thought there was little stigma because while the drugs require a prescription, they are legal and FDA-approved. He also noted their use has skyrocketed in recent years, and their impact has been reflected in pop culture.

For example, on the ABC show "Desperate Housewives," one of the characters used her son's ADD medication to stay up all night to make costumes for his play.

But they can be dangerous. The government regulates Ritalin and Adderall as tightly as Oxycontin and morphine, because of the potential adverse effects on the body and the mind.

"The short-term physical impact, there are people who can have serious cardiac risks," said Heiligenstein. "There are serious psychiatric effects they are missing."

He said some students are even starting to experience dependence and addiction. He says he's recently had students come to him and say, "I can't get off it, I want to stop using it, but I can't."

Teenager Jacob Stone even says his abuse of attention deficit drugs led him down the road to becoming addicted to cocaine and crystal meth.

"It all started with Ritalin and Adderall," he said. "I started taking them everyday [to get high] and pretty soon it didn't work anymore and I needed something more, I needed a bigger, faster boost."

Maggie, however, isn't worried about becoming addicted. She says she's careful, and she credits them with helping her during the finals week when "Primetime" cameras were watching her.

One other question posed by the study drugs is whether they give an unfair advantage over the kids who study the old fashioned way.

Randy Cohen, who writes a column on ethics for The New York Times Magazine, said he couldn't think of an ethical reason not to take something that would make you learn better.

"If there's a pill I can take, you take this pill and I'll know French, you'd be an idiot not to take the pill," he said.

But when asked if he would allow his daughter to take Adderall, Cohen said he would object -- "on health grounds, not on ethical grounds."

Cohen said because the goal in academics is to learn as much as possible, theoretically, study drugs should be made available to every student, if such a pill were safe.

But that's a big and unrealistic "if." He said, "I think it's a golden dream that there is a drug that is going to make it incredibly easier to learn. I wish it were so."

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