College is hard enough. But throw in end-of-semester exams, term papers and standardized tests, and there just aren't enough hours in the day. Enter Ritalin, the latest drug of choice among sleep-deprived students struggling to make the grade.
Undergraduates, as well as high school SAT-takers, are increasingly turning to prescription stimulants to boost concentration during long study sessions and all-nighters, according to drug abuse experts at the University of Florida, who cite a rise in the number of teen patients they see who openly admit to having conned unnecessary prescriptions from doctors.
Ten percent of college students use stimulants illegally at some point in their college years, a 2005 study by the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center revealed, and many get them from friends who were legally prescribed the drugs. And according to the federal government's Drug Abuse Warning Network, the number of emergency room visits stemming from illicit use of pharmaceuticals jumped 20 percent between 2004 and 2005. Experts fear the trend is only growing worse.
Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition characterized by a brief attention span, impulsive behavior and excessive energy. At recommended doses, the medications heighten concentration and alertness.
“Most students who use their friend's stimulants do it to improve performance,” said Scott Teitelbaum, M.D., medical director of the Florida Recovery Center at UF. “It's like athletes taking steroids – the idea that you can study better, harder, longer, as if you were hitting a ball farther.”
But the pills won't make up for a semester of slacking off, said Teitelbaum.
“When you look at the students that use illicit (stimulants), their performance at school is worse,” Teitelbaum said. “And that's probably because the need to use the drug reflects them being behind, and needing to cram and catch up.”
Ritalin revs up the central nervous system, creating feelings of alertness that fall somewhere between those produced by caffeine and cocaine.
“If you look at Ritalin structurally, it's the closest relative to cocaine,” said Teitelbaum. “I think it depends on the dose one is taking, and why they're taking it. Some people take stimulants solely for the effect on concentration. Other people are taking it for the buzz.”
Pharmaceutical abuse is on the rise among teens, surpassing the combined rates of crack/cocaine, Ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine abuse, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Experts predict the trend will continue because the pills are inexpensive and widely available.
“Unlike cocaine, you can get Ritalin very cheaply from your friends because all they need is their co-pay,” Teitelbaum said. “There's a great availability.”
Some students will go to great lengths to trick physicians into writing prescriptions for Ritalin.
“There is no question that the modern student is smart, and smart enough to go to a doctor and to tell them exactly what the symptoms are of attention deficit disorder, to get stimulants,” Teitelbaum said. “There's a group of people getting the prescription not to use it themselves, but to sell it.”
In many states, sharing prescription pills is just as criminal as selling the drugs.
“This means it will be the equivalent of a felony drug offense, with possible jail time depending on the student's record and outcome of the person who consumed the drug,” said John Burke, president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators Inc. “Regardless, the students will have a felony criminal record, which will eliminate them from the possibility of obtaining certain jobs.”
Although many students consider prescription pill popping a “safe” alternative to street drugs, experts warn that's not always the case. Students who take the medication illegally often ingest higher doses than recommended, increasing the risk for neurological and heart-related symptoms.
“Part of the problem is that people aren't taking it as prescribed,” Teitelbaum said. “Somebody might think if 10 milligrams keeps most people up, I need 20 or 30 or 40 to stay awake longer. I need more because I need to study and I'm way behind. They don't understand the relationship between dose and effect.”
Physicians try to prevent adverse reactions by screening patients for pre-existing conditions and keeping track of other drugs in their patients' medicine cabinets. But the potential for disaster increases when patients share their prescriptions with friends.
“There are a lot of issues that are somewhat unknown to the person taking (the stimulants). A higher dose might make them more likely to have an irregular heartbeat or get hyperthermia. There could be another medicine that the person is on that could interact,” Teitelbaum said.
But the riskiest part about the prescription drug craze sweeping college campuses?
“You don't always know what you're getting when you buy a drug from somebody else,” Teitelbaum said. “You might think you're getting one thing and you're getting another.”