Stern: “Smart” drugs that aren’t so smart

Staying up late to finish last-minute work is a weekly reality for many of us, and the buzzing fear of deadlines is persistently ringing in our ears.

Decades ago, college students would just hand in the assignment a day late. But today, many kids can make deadline — with the aid of prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, usually used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.

According to a 2010 report by the television show “60 Minutes,” today’s rates of amphetamine abuse are high: 50 to 60 percent of college juniors and seniors, and over 80 percent of juniors and seniors in fraternities or sororities, use Adderall or Ritalin illegally.

It is not surprising that students take supplements to manage the mounting pressures of homework, the competitive nature of college and the dauntingly scarce job market. Indeed, the temptation to use a simple “quick fix” pill to get better grades and a job offer seems obvious. In today’s pill-popping culture, where there is a medical cure for almost any ailment — Advil for a hangover, Xanax for anxiety, Viagra for sexual difficulties and SSRIs for depression — it makes sense that a drug that betters academic performance is a hit on the consumer market, especially college campuses.

When considering only the next paper, amphetamines can generally produce the desired outcomes. Adderall and Ritalin have been proved to function as stimulants in individuals without ADHD or narcolepsy, enabling students to stay awake longer, study more efficiently when sleep-deprived and focus better. In this way, amphetamines undeniably allow users to beat nature and not sleep.

But the long-term ramifications of regular Adderall abuse are, overall, more detrimental to academic performance than staying au natural. The details of exactly how your brain and body change when taking these prescription drugs elucidate that, while the pills may buy a student more study time, they do not improve cognitive ability. A 2005 study found that recreational Adderall users have an average GPA of 3.0 or lower. In actuality, Adderall self-reinforces the procrastination it aims to rectify, by facilitating a downward spiral of staying up too late and finishing assignments at the last minute. Staying up all night might help you write a grammatically correct (albeit unimaginative and formulaic) paper, but sleep deficit the next day has its own consequences, and students can enter a vicious cycle that ultimately hurts more than it helps.

A student’s use of Adderall or Ritalin can also quickly change from use to abuse. Adderall and Ritalin are known as “Schedule 2” drugs, falling in the same legal category as cocaine and heroine. This group is considered by the Federal Drug Administration to have the highest abuse and addiction potential of all legally approved drugs. It does not help that the stimulants are readily available and cheap (selling at $5 per pill on average) either. A 2005 study at the University of Maryland showed that Adderall was the third-most-accessible drug on campus, after alcohol and marijuana. While Adderall was originally used only for increasing productivity, it has been infiltrating a different market as a party drug — a seeming panacea for a work-hard, play-hard college atmosphere.

But students do not carry full blame for the prevalence of “smart drug” abuse on college campuses. The pharmaceutical sector trivializes the strength of Adderall and Ritalin, and many doctors never tell patients about these drugs’ striking similarity to cocaine in molecular structure and chemical mechanism (they all increase dopamine levels in the brain and heighten alertness and productivity). Some psychiatrists today are also too quick to prescribe the stimulants, turning a blind eye to patients that recite a laundry list of symptoms from WebMD to get a script.

In the consumer world, amphetamines are misconstrued as harmless when taken irregularly or “as needed,” in small doses. But the stimulants can cause high blood pressure and associated complications such as stroke and heart attack. Users frequently find themselves overly stimulated because the drug is acting on their non-deficient brain.

No matter who is most to blame for this pervasive public health issue on college campuses, the only way to fix the problem is through education. As students become aware of the true consequences of Adderall and Ritalin abuse, they will hopefully think twice before turning to a quick fix for that last-minute paper. Knowledge of the adverse effects of recreational stimulants on mental health, safety and environment should be enough to motivate students to look beyond the immediate deadline for their papers and realize that this Band-Aid solution is only covering a dangerous wound.