Study Drugs: Why They’re Unhealthy, Unsafe, and Unnecessary

Consider this scenario: It’s 9 p.m. the night before your final paper is due, and you haven’t started. You know you need to get at least a B on the assignment in order to meet the GPA requirement for your academic scholarship. Not wanting to risk losing your financial aid, you decide to pay the girl across the hall for an Adderall that you’re told will help you stay awake and focused. You head back to your room and pop the pill without considering the medication’s potential side effects or your illegal actions.

Study Drugs

It’s likely that this scenario is familiar to you. Perhaps you have been that person (more or less) or you know someone on campus who has. According to the National Center for Health Research, a study at a small liberal arts college in Maine found that one in three students had abused Adderall. Another study of 10,000 students across the nation found that more than half of those with an ADHD medication prescription were asked to sell their pills. Abuse of “study drugs” is widespread, but few students know what they are taking and the risks involved.

What exactly are “study drugs?”

“Study drugs” are prescription stimulants that are intended for use by people with attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, sleep apnea, or shift work sleep disorder. They fall into three categories: those made with amphetamine salts, those made with methylphenidate, and those that are considered eugeroics or “wakefulness-promoting agents.” The most common study drugs are listed under their appropriate category below.

Amphetamine Pharmaceuticals:

  • Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)
  • Dexedrine and Focalin (dextroamphetamine)
  • Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine)


  • Ritalin
  • Concerta


  • Modafinil
  • Armodafinil

How many people are using them?

Approximately 2.5 million Americans are prescribed prescription stimulants to treat ADHD. Dr. David Rabiner, research professor at Duke University, describes ADHD as “a disorder characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that occurs in academic, occupational, or social settings.” Adderall and Ritalin (and their cousin drugs) are used to stimulate the central nervous system, increasing the availability of dopamine and norepinephrine, which can help calm and focus a patient with ADHD.

As you know, many of the pills prescribed are not going to the appropriate patient. A national study of 10,000 students found that 7% had abused “study drugs,” although the numbers varied at different universities. Students are also starting to move away from the amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals in favor of Modafinil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work disorder. In 2015, a survey at Oxford University found that 26% of students at the university had tried Modafinil.

Why are students without a prescription using these drugs?An overwhelmed student may consider experimenting with study drugs in college.

Students are often overcommitted and under intense pressure to succeed. A 2015 study published by the American College Health Association found that 85.6% of students reported feeling overwhelmed, at some point during the year, by everything they had to do. Additionally, 45.1% said that academics had been very hard to handle. When down to the wire, some students find it hard to turn down a pill that is supposed to keep you awake and focused on the task at hand.

Students also abuse prescription stimulants for nonacademic purposes. Some students take Adderall to get high, become more sociable, or to lose weight.  

Do “study drugs” make you smarter?

No. Amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals will not make you smarter according to the American Medical Association (AMA). In a statement released on June 14, 2016, the AMA said, “The available evidence suggests the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants appear to be highly variable among individuals, are dose-dependent, and limited or modest at best in healthy individuals.” They also included a statement from one of their members, Maya A. Babu, M.D., M.B.A: “As temptation grows to use prescription drugs for a competitive advantage at work and school, the nonmedical use of these drugs should be discouraged given potential for substance misuse and other adverse consequences.”

What are the health risks involved with abusing “study drugs?”

Amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals used for the treatment of ADHD are schedule II drugs, meaning they “have a high potential of abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.” Casey Schwartz, author of In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis, understands what this means all too well. Last summer, she wrote a New York Times article that chronicled her decade-long struggle with Adderall addiction. She started using in college but found that she couldn’t break the habit over the course of her twenties. At the age of 30 and under the supervision of a “brilliant” psychiatrist, she was finally able to stop using, but it wasn’t easy:

If someone so much as said “Adderall” in my presence, I would instantly begin to scheme about how to get just one more pill. Or maybe two. I was anxious, terrified I had done something irreversible to my brain, terrified that I was going to discover that I couldn’t write at all without my special pills. I didn’t yet know that it would only be in the amphetamine-free years to follow that my book would finally come together.

Addiction isn’t the only concern. Side effects of amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceutical abuse may include the following:

Due to the high potential of addiction and the risk of side effects, many students have steered clear of amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals and are instead choosing to take Modafinil. This wakefulness-promoting drug is categorized as a schedule IV drug, meaning it has a lower abuse potential than Adderall and Ritalin. However, it is not a miracle drug, as many people have claimed. There have been no long-term studies and “high doses could potentially lead to cardiovascular or metabolic risk, or simply over-driving alertness, which can cause headaches, dizziness, depression, and mania.” Additionally, a study published by the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience found that Modafinil could induce changes in brain plasticity, negatively impacting decision-making and logical thinking in adolescents and juveniles.

To sum it up: The health risks of abusing “study drugs” clearly outweigh the benefits.

What are the possible consequences of illegally possessing ADHD drugs?

You could be punished with jail time if you are caught illegally possessing study drugs.From a legal standpoint, amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals are categorized alongside cocaine and speed. Consequences for possession and intention of selling these substances vary by state. In Oregon, “unlawful possession of Class II substances is a Class C felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and $125,000 in fines.” According to a law corporation in California, possession of Adderall with intent to sell is punishable by two, three, or four years in county jail.

You can take the time to research your own state laws for illegal possession and distribution of schedule II drugs, but it’s unlikely that you’ll learn anything comforting.

What can you do otherwise?

If you are taking ADHD drugs because you are stressed and you want to improve your cognitive function, the best alternative solutions are sleep and procrastination avoidance. According to Dr. David Dinges, Chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, a good night’s sleep has found to improve memory and learning in a number of studies. "Stimulants do not replace sleep," Dinges says, "and the drug won't give you what sleep can give you." But in order to sleep longer and better in college, you must have strong time management skills. If you struggle with procrastination, understand the root cause to find ways to battle the habit.

Remember, by taking amphetamine and methylphenidate pharmaceuticals without a prescription, you are putting yourself at risk for addiction, other serious health problems, and prosecution for illegal action. Modafinil is not a safe alternative because studies suggest that its use could affect long-term brain function. It’s worth it to invest your energy in developing time management skills and prioritizing your commitments so you can get enough ZZZs. Even though many students are turning to “study drugs,” stand apart from the crowd for the sake of your future.

About Megan Reynolds

Megan loves listening to podcasts while doing all of her favorite things: researching, cooking, taking long road trips, and running in freezing temperatures. Curious to a fault, Megan thinks her personality is best suited for teaching so that she can constantly learn alongside her students. While she pursues a master’s degree in New York City, she hopes to share her strategies for conquering admissions and financial aid with all students who are interested in pursuing higher education. Stay tuned to see if she can break her undergraduate habit, formed at Emerson College, of pulling multiple all-nighters fueled by a mixture of coffee and Swiss Miss—the poor student’s mocha.

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