Illegal Adderall Use Growing Among College Students


By Gabriela De Almeida

An increasing number of college students are turning to the stimulant drug Adderall to gain an academic edge, according to research by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study, published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on Feb. 16, found that while prescriptions for the stimulant have not increased among 18-to-25-year olds, its use without a prescription rose by 67 percent, and emergency room visits related to its misuse rose by 156 percent over a period of five years.

Adderall, a brand name for dextroamphetamine-amphetamine, is commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. The study reported that about 36 percent of Adderall users believed using the drug would help them be “smarter” and used it as a study aid.  The stimulant has a reputation on campuses as a means of “getting smart,” and many students believe the drug is not harmful, according to the study.

The researchers examined three national surveys that were conducted between 2006 and 2011: a survey of office-based practices, a population survey of substance use, and a survey of emergency department visits. They examined the changes and trends between the three surveys over time, as well as the reasons for emergency department visits related to dextroamphetamine-amphetamine and how the drug was obtained by nonmedical users–users without a prescription.

An overwhelming majority reported getting them for free, buying them, or stealing them from a friend or relative who had a prescription. Experts call this“drug diversion.” Others reported obtaining the drugs from illegal sources like drug dealers, via the Internet, fake prescriptions, or stealing from pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals, according to the study.

Adderall is also the drug of choice compared to other ADHD medications. Dextroamphetamine-amphetamine in Adderall increases both dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which is associated with enhanced cognitive function.  Other popular ADHD prescriptions, such as Concerta and Ritalin, are methylphenidates, which do not perform the same way in regards to cognitive enhancement. The study says that this difference might explain why nonmedical use is increasing so rapidly for Adderall, as opposed to the other stimulants used to treat ADHD.

While the drug does in fact improve focus, it can also cause sleeping problems and serious cardiovascular side effects like high blood pressure and stroke–not to mention, it’s highly addictive.  The stimulant has also been known to cause or intensify mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and unusually aggressive or hostile behavior, according to the  U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The study suggests that stimulant drugs like Adderall should be receiving the same form of close monitoring that prescription painkillers have been receiving in recent years. “The main driver of misuse and emergency room visits related to the drug is the result of diversion, people taking medication that is legitimately prescribed to someone else,” said a co-author of the study, Lian-Yu Chen, MD, in a news release. “Physicians need to be much more aware of what is happening and take steps to prevent it from continuing.”

There needs to be an increased effort towards educating college students about the adverse effects of taking these drugs without physician supervision. An improved understanding of drug diversion and nonmedical use of prescription stimulants among young adults will be a valuable step towards the development of educational initiatives and prevention programs.

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