On a Friday night, outside of a pub in the Inner Richmond, Owen Barrett, 23, lit a cigarette as he tried to focus his eyes on me. “Hey, is it true you have a Ritalin ‘script?” my friend and fellow USF student slurred.
He offered to buy any prescription Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D) medication I had access to. Barrett is a junior business major with an impressive resume; he has already been offered a $60,000 per year salary immediately following graduation. When I reminded him that he no longer had to worry about acing his classes, he giggled. “Yeah, but I’ve got to get through finals somehow.”
Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, Concerta, Dexedrine and Focalin are all prescription names for stimulant medication used to treat A.D.H.D. While there are relatively subtle differences between these medications, they all have the effect of limiting the inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity that characterize the disorder.
However, when the user doesn’t have A.D.H.D., those medications give sharp focus on the task at hand and lend a sense of self-confidence. This has made it a popular drug choice for college students across the country who, like Barrett, don’t have A.D.H.D. but buy it illegally in order to study harder and have enough energy to manage all of their responsibilities.
A.D.H.D. medications are classified as a Schedule II substance under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning being caught in possession of them without a prescription is a felony. Those who obtain the drugs illegally risk a minimum $1000 fine and a possible prison sentence of one year if they’re caught.
Every interviewee agreed that finding an illegal supply is seldom a problem. According to Dr. Lawrence Diller, M.D., a behavioral and developmental pediatrician who has written extensively on the use and abuse of A.D.H.D. medication, the United States uses approximately 70% of the world’s supply of prescription stimulants, despite only having 4% of the population. “There’s just a lot of it readily available,” he said. “Most people diagnosed with A.D.H.D. don’t really need medication for it…there will always be a core group that abuses it and people will sell it if they don’t really need it.”
The high demand for stimulants among college students makes it relatively easy to sell for those who have a supply.
With a smile that suggests he knows the punch line before he hears the joke, Poindexter-esque glasses, and a shock of red hair, Jay Asher, 25, is a far cry from the stereotype of a drug dealer.
“It was kind of an accident, someone offered to sell me a big bag [of Adderall] for relatively cheap so I bought it and sold a bunch,” he said. Sipping a whiskey-and-coke at a bar in Polk Gulch, Asher explained his business practices. Though he is a recent film school graduate who works in a coffee shop, Asher has occasionally dealt Adderall to college students, including some who attend USF.
“I took some too, but I sold [Adderall] over a period of six months… It was $5 a pill but I sold it for $7. Thin profit margin, but I mostly sold [to friends],” he said.
USF student Alex O’Shaughnessy, 21, has never received drugs from Asher, although he’s found stimulants easy to procure. “I just ask around and one of my friends is bound to have some or know someone who does,” he said. Though he was originally opposed to the idea of using stimulants, afraid he would become dependent on them to complete his schoolwork, O’Shaughnessy now takes a 25mg dose of Vyvanse when he has to study for a test or complete a big project. He also takes it before job interviews to bolster his mental agility and social skills. “It makes me feel sharper,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Summer Roberts, 22, is bright-eyed, soft spoken and seemingly always on the go. A senior media studies major at USF, she holds down a part-time job and a leadership position in a student organization, on top of her full school schedule. Roberts admitted she is scared she has already developed a dependency on Adderall. “It’s not good for me… but it makes me feel like I can handle [my school work],” she said.
On the day of our formal interview, she only had 15mg of Adderall pumping through her veins, a lower dose than what she’d grown accustomed to. Roberts started using Adderall to do her homework during her freshman year of college with the occasional 5mg pill. Currently, she takes a 30 mg pill several times a week. “I don’t think I have A.D.H.D.,” she said “I just need it for the motivation.”
A story entitled “Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions,” published by the New York Times on February 2, 2013, profiled another college student who used both Adderall and Vyvanse to study. After occasionally buying them from friends during college, Richard Fee obtained a legal prescription for both medications in order to do well on the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school. Fee was an award-winning athlete and class president of Greensboro College, where he graduated with honors with a degree in biology and chemistry. However, Fee’s story took a dark turn when he became addicted to amphetamine, the main ingredient in both Adderall and Vyvanse.
Amphetamine-based medications like Adderall and Vyvanse are unique from other A.D.H.D. medications in the respect that they also can create a sense of euphoria. However, paranoia, aggression and hallucinations are all symptoms of amphetamine abuse and Fee became dependent on the medication, crippled by those symptoms and the debilitating depression that can occur with the ‘come down.’ Fee sought multiple prescriptions from local psychiatrists, convincing several that he needed Adderall, even as he grew increasingly psychotic and violent as a result of his addiction.
After being admitted and released from a mental institution, Fee sought received a 90-day Adderall prescription for 50mg from another psychiatrist. Fee took his last dose of Adderall in early October 2011, after his parents intervened. For addicts, quitting stimulants abruptly is dangerous and can result in psychotic reactions, anxiety and severe depression. On November 7, 2011 Richard Fee committed suicide at the age of 25, a direct result of his long struggle with addiction and subsequent drug withdrawal.
No one interviewed for this story knew of anyone struggling with an addiction to stimulants, nor did they view stimulant abuse as something that could result in tragedy, as Fee’s life did. “No more than half-dozen students come in every semester [for a stimulant dependence issue],” said Dr. Barbara Thomas, the senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at USF. “We’re no better and no worse than most colleges,” she said.
However, Kamal Harb, the director of Health Promotion Services was less certain. “We haven’t surveyed students about that sort of thing in years,” he said “we don’t want to overwhelm students with surveys.”
CAPS typically refers students with substance abuse issues to counseling outside of USF. “Certainly folks come here if they feel like they have a problem,” Dr. Thomas said “…[we have] the Big Book study group that meets weekly. It’s facilitated by students… we don’t advise or anything.”
O’Shaughnessy is not dependent on Vyvanse, but he’s well aware of the negative side effects. “I don’t eat as much on the days I take it… it’s harder to get into the mood for sex” he said, both of which are common side effect of stimulant use, regardless of legality. However, he would recommend it to other students: “It makes you get s*** done.”
Roberts is considering trying to wean herself off Adderall but the concept is difficult to stomach, considering her job and extra-curricular activities take up roughly 40 hours of the week. However, Roberts has often found herself fixated on the details of assignments, spending hours reframing a single paragraph, down to comma placement. The keen sense of focus Adderall once gave her now borders on outright obsession.
She has also admitted to experiencing hallucinations when she takes higher doses; objects move suddenly, shadowy figures walk down the halls and whispery voices come from nowhere. Following a three-day Adderall binge during final exams last year, she flew into a rage at another USF student in line at the cafeteria, calling her a “fat bitch” and running out of the building.
Poor health plagues Roberts as a result of her continued abuse, she said. “I don’t eat when I take Adderall and I don’t go to the gym either because your heart goes so fast anyways, I’m afraid something will happen… I’ve heard people have died when they snort it, their heart stops.”
Though there is no evidence to suggest that ingesting amphetamines in any way directly causes heart attacks, according to University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, prolonged amphetamine use can cause cardiac arrhythmias and difficulty breathing. The long-time psychological impacts are also serious; the use of amphetamine in particular has been linked to depression, anxiety and other mood and behavioral disorders.
Though the accessibility of A.D.H.D. medication, both legally and illegally, is undoubtedly a factor in its wide-spread abuse, it’s also symptomatic of a cultural construct. Dr. Lawrence Diller blames what he calls a ‘materialist meritocracy’. “[Our culture] creates anxiety about self-image and self-esteem, creating intolerance towards differences in personality and performance,” he said. “We equate acquisition, including achievement, with happiness.”
As a generation that’s growing up in a post-recession era, they’re faced with daunting odds. A college degree is no longer guaranteed a career and jobs are scarce to begin with. A resume filled with internships, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs and excellent grades is considered the norm among college graduates. Fighting constantly to achieve more is, as Dr. Diller suggested, the result of a fear of not being ‘good enough.’ As people grow, they eventually come to realize the sacrifices they’ve made for causes that bring them no personal validation. The resulting discontentment leads to people fighting for something more profound, as hard as they have fought for all their accolades and honors. Perhaps that struggle is the root of happiness.