Study Drugs: A Gateway to Hard Drugs?
By: Joseph Raspolich
Study drugs like Ritalin or Adderall are widely used on college campuses as a way to focus and get ahead. But is it just a harmless way to stay focused or does it have lasting consequences?
Few things are as stressful in the first 20 years of the average American life as a college all-nighter. The moment when you decide to sacrifice sleep for a paper or project is disheartening. As the hours tick by, you wonder if you’ll finish before the sun begins to send its rays through the blinds in your dorm room. How are you going to manage to stay awake through the night?
With today’s course loads and competitive campuses, most students will have to “pull an all-nighter” at least once during their college career. For many, the stresses and pressures of college are just part of the experience. But others find another way to handle the pressures that come with modern collegiate life.
According to one study, between 5% and 35% of college students have used study drugs at one point during their college career. Students who use them report an elevated ability to complete their work quickly, while minimizing stress. However, the benefits come with many risks including addiction, dependence, medical complications, and overdose.
What are Study Drugs?
Study drugs are any substance that increases focus, drive, alertness, or staves off drowsiness. These drugs can be anything from caffeine pills like No Doz or ADHD prescriptions like Ritalin. The latter is the most common and most dangerous. Some students get prescriptions for themselves, some buy them off of friends and friends of friends, and some buy them online. Common study drugs include:
- No Doz
- Other caffeine pills
Drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall) are central nervous system stimulants that are used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Students often use them to keep up with heavy workloads, to get through “cram sessions,” and to get ahead of their classmates academically. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Adderall can also improve working memory, long-term memory, and attention. It has also been shown to improve IQ in children with ADHD.
Some students use other substances as study aids like caffeine pills. And while seemingly counterintuitive, high-stress students have reported using marijuana to calm nerves while studying. This is generally used to curb “perfectionism”.
What is the Gateway Drug Theory?
The gateway drug theory is a phrase used to describe the idea that psychoactive drug use increases the likelihood that the user will abuse other drugs. It is often used in reference to marijuana or cigarette smoking leading to harder drug use in adolescents. But now, wide use of study drugs have some worried that students are opening themselves up to harder drug use.
The gateway drug model is widely disputed by scientists. There seems to be some correlation between use of cigarettes and marijuana both in statistics and in animal studies but it’s difficult to pinpoint a cause. The theory suggests that there could be a developmental, biological, or a societal cause for adolescents who move on to hard drugs after experimenting with “softer” ones.
For instance, one study on mice points out a potential chemical cause for nicotine leading to cocaine use. However, others believe that the gateway model is inherently flawed, especially as it is applied to public policy.
Study Drugs Risks
Study drugs, especially misused prescription drugs, can cause serious side effects. As with many drugs, these effects can vary based on the dosage and individual, but there are a few common risks, including:
- Gastrointestinal distress like nausea and abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Cardiovascular effects like tachycardia, heart rate change, and blood pressure change
Amphetamines can also cause what is called amphetamine psychosis, which can cause hallucinations, delusions of persecution, and extreme agitation. However, psychosis is rare in prescribed doses but can sometimes occur in chronic use. Amphetamines are also associated with conditioned place preference or the affinity for places where the drug was taken.
These prescription study drugs also have a risk of overdose. Though usually not fatal, both Ritalin and Adderall can cause adverse effects when taken in high doses. The severity of the overdose depends on individual resistance and the dose.
Mild overdose effects include abnormal heartbeats, hypertension, hypotension, confusion, tremors, muscle pain, rapid breathing, elevated body temperature, and painful urination. A severe overdose can be fatal without medical intervention and can include cardiac shock, brain hemorrhaging, psychosis, muscle breakdown, respiratory issues, and kidney failure.
Students aren’t using psychostimulants like ADHD medication in the same way they might use alcohol or other drugs. Many use them exclusively as a tool, rather than as a recreation drug. Some even report saving them as a last resort, only using them in times when they face particularly demanding workloads.
A 2014 study supports this claim. Use of psychostimulant study drugs is often increased in periods of high academic stress. This could mean that students are using psychostimulants as a stress coping mechanism rather simply to get a head.
Are Study Drugs Addictive?
Study drugs are also associated with dependence and addiction. Although prescribed doses of methylamphetamine and amphetamine are not known to lead to addiction, high doses for recreational use can. Abusers can build up a tolerance to amphetamines quickly, requiring heavier doses to achieve the same effects. Abuse and addiction are also associated with psychosis.
ADHD and Co-Morbid Drug Use
There is very little evidence to suggest that study drugs significantly increase a person’s risk of moving on to other drugs, especially when taking prescribed doses. Some worry that children who take ADHD medication will be more likely to abuse drugs when they are older. However, the opposite may be the case.
Studies show that ADHD has a significant comorbidity with substance abuse disorder. In other words, people with undiagnosed ADHD are more likely to use and abuse drugs. This may occur as an attempt to self-medicate with other substances. In cases of ADHD, a proper prescription of a medication like Ritalin or Adderall can prevent future drug abuse.
However, students who don’t have ADHD and don’t have a prescription are abusing drugs on campuses. Uncontrolled use of substances like amphetamines puts students at risk for addiction which can lead to the abuse of other amphetamines.
If you or someone you know is struggling with amphetamine addiction, call Delphi Behavioral Health Group at 844-899-5777 or contact us online to speak to a consultant anytime. Start your road to recovery today!