Adderall Abuse: “Smart Drug” by Day, “Kiddie Coke” by Night

Adderall is quickly becoming one of the most popular drugs on college campuses. Nicknamed “Addy” by young adults, the stimulant prescribed to patients with ADHD is now considered the most abused prescription drug in America. Estimates say that approximately 25% of college students abuse Adderall or Ritalin.

There are two primary abuses of Adderall and a multitude of reasons why. First, and most frequently, Adderall is used as a “smart drug”. It is taken by students when they need to grind through homework on a Sunday night or pull an all-nighter before an exam. Not surprisingly, the stimulant helps to promote productivity and focus. Often, students feel tremendous pressure to succeed, especially at top-tier universities, and feel that “Addy” will give them the extra kick that they need. The Cornell student newspaper published an article with personal anecdotes from students, one of which I will share here:

“Leah, who took Vyvanse, a stimulant similar to Adderall that is also used to treat ADHD, said she took 150 milligrams over the course of two days. The standard dose for a first-time user is 30 milligrams, according to clinical studies. ‘I needed to pass my multivariable calculus final, and I hadn’t gone to any of the lectures. I stayed awake for 72 hours. I started convulsing, and I was shaking and nauseous at the end. Afterwards, I fell asleep for a solid 24 hours,’ Leah said. ‘I won’t be doing Vyvanse again. I passed my final though, so that’s all that counts,’ she added.”

Studies have shown that non-medical use of these drugs was highest in “college students who were male, white, members of fraternities and sororities and earned lower grade point averages,” and that “rates were higher at colleges located in the north-eastern region of the U.S. and colleges with more competitive admission standards.” Students may think that Adderall abuse is not that bad because they are taking the drug for the right reasons.

One of the biggest concerns with the rise in Adderall abuse is that students do not understand the risks involved. In a study of 1,800 college students, the authors found that 81% of students thought that the drug was “not dangerous at all” or only “slightly dangerous”. However, Adderall is an amphetamine. It hijack’s the brain’s reward system and can cause addiction and dependence just like its cousins: cocaine, meth and morphine. Adderall can also have dangerous side effects like anxiety, blood pressure elevations, seizures and cardiac arrest, in addition to more common side effects like appetite loss.

The second abuse of Adderall is as a party drug. Students will sometimes crush up the pills and snort them, with the drug causing users to stay active and alert late into the night. Sometimes its referred to as “kiddie coke”, because by snorting a larger dose you can achieve a similar high for far less money: $5-$25 a pill. When mixed with alcohol, the situation becomes even more dangerous. From 2005 to 2012 the amount of emergency room visits for brain stimulant abuse skyrocketed from 5,605 to 22,949, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.

Why have non-medical uses of stimulants become so popular recently? Other than the fact that they’re relatively cheap and don’t seem as “bad” to students, Adderall is so pervasive because of its widespread availability. With the steep rise in prescriptions for stimulants, almost everyone in college knows someone who has access to extra pills. One study showed that although American children are not more hyperactive or inattentive than other children, the United States holds 83%-90% of the total market share of ADHD medications. Because the drugs are prescribed in such quantities, the surplus on campuses has inevitably led to abuse.

If stimulant abuse isn’t on your radar, it should be. It may be one of the most threatening drug epidemics to hit young adults yet.