Some admit illicit use of stimulants

Friday, April 3, 2009

Nearly 8 percent of students have illegally used prescription stimulants – such as Adderall, Dexedrine and Ritalin – during this academic year, according to a recent Herald poll.

Among the students surveyed, 7.9 percent said they had used prescription stimulants that were not prescribed to them once or more during that time period. Of those surveyed, 3.1 percent said they used stimulants only one time, 3.7 percent said they used them “a few times” and 1.1 percent said they used them more frequently than that. 89.8 percent said they had not used them this year and 2.2 percent chose not to answer.

The results are similar to the national average estimated by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia (CASA), which found that 6.7 percent of college students used prescription stimulants illegally during the 12-month period studied. Doctors generally prescribe such medications to people who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Most of the admitted illicit users in the CASA study said they used the medications to help them study, but nearly a third said that getting high was at least one factor. The study found that white males most frequently used those drugs illicitly, and said research has found Greek membership to be another positive correlate with illegal use nationwide.

CASA reported that at least 43 pharmaceutical Web sites sell stimulants without requiring a prescription. Still, the most common method for college students to obtain these drugs was through friends.

One Brown sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous, has bought Adderall “3-4 times this year,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “It was real easy,” he wrote.”All I had to do was ask a friend to get some.”

The student, who added that he has given the drug to friends, wrote that he did not fear getting in trouble.

A first-year, who also asked not to be named, said he has been taking Adderall since a doctor diagnosed him with ADHD in fourth grade. Because he takes the prescribed medication only when he feels it is necessary, he has possessed surplus pills that he has given to some of his friends.

The student said he has given away the pills a few times, accepting money if the other person insists on buying the pills from him. Whether for money or not, he has been careful to give out Adderall to only a few people, he said.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving it to someone I didn’t know,” he said.

In comparison to using Adderall to stay alert, coffee and other drinks with caffeine are not as helpful, the first-year said.

Health concerns

In fact, ingesting enough caffeine to equal the effects of a prescription stimulant would probably be more harmful, said Associate Professor of Pediatrics Judith Owens ’77 MD’80, who studies the relationship between stimulants and sleep.

But snorting prescription stimulants to get high is far more dangerous than simply ingesting them in pill form, Owens said. In addition to ethical and legal issues posed by use of the drugs, Owens cautioned against thinking that they will necessarily improve one’s mental performance.

“One of the concerns I have is that I think people assume that when they use these sort of alertness-enhancing substances that they reverse any detriments associated with sleepiness,” she said. “The jury is still also out in regards to how much these medications actually do improve performance, especially in the face of sleep deprivation.”

Director of Health Education Frances Mantak ’88 said she worries that a student who feels more alert after using a prescription stimulant once might be convinced that he or she can no longer focus without using the drugs. People can also incorrectly assume there will be relatively few harmful physical effects, she said.

“People have a sense that, ‘Well, this is a legal drug, therefore it’s safe,'” Mantak said. “They don’t often realize what could happen to them if they have a heart condition, for example.”

In a 1990 study by the National Institute of Mental Health, Alan Zametkin MD’77 concluded that stimulants like Ritalin could help treat ADHD – a finding which some people credit with starting the surge of stimulant prescriptions for ADHD diagnoses. Between 1990 and 2005, prescriptions of methylphenidate and amphetamine (the generic terms for Ritalin and Adderall, respectively) jumped more than 3,000 percent, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education.

Now a senior clinical staff physician for the NIMH, Zametkin said ADHD is not over-diagnosed, but there needs to be more attention paid to the unlawful distribution of drugs prescribed for the disorder.

“The medical community itself has to take some responsibility for the issues of (stimulant) diversion because we just don’t warn our patients about it enough,” he said.

People between the ages of 18 and 22 in particular may lack the information and maturity to make good decisions about prescription drugs, he said.

“To think that you can send any kid off to school with any kind of drug is naive,” Zametkin said, adding that colleges should do more to oversee prescription drug use on their campuses and educate students about the risks of illicit use.

Still, he considers oral use of these drugs to be relatively safe, he said.

“Compared to blackouts from alcohol, we’re talking about an entirely different scale of magnitude of medical problems,” he said.

‘Beneath the radar’

Greg Anderson ’10, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said that taking these pills “isn’t necessarily a bad thing” and that they should be treated like other illegal, but rarely lethal, drugs.

“I personally don’t see anything wrong with using it very rarely,” Anderson said. “I would put using stimulants at the same level as using marijuana recreationally.”

The University treats illicit possession or distribution of prescription drugs in the same category as any drugs that are completely illegal, said Associate Dean of Student Life Terry Addison. University policy states that dealers of drugs “are subject to immediate separation from the University.”

Though the Department of Public Safety refers only about one student a year to the Office of Student Life for cases of stimulant misuse, Addison said the University is aware that students violate the rule more frequently.

“Because they’re prescribed and because they’re being shared and possibly sold by students, it’s sort of beneath the radar,” he said.

While Addison said he does not condone use of the drugs without a prescription, he said he takes selling the drugs to be a much more serious offense.

“When a person actively looks to profit by selling prescription drugs,” he said, “it puts it in a whole other category.”

In light of legal consequences inside and outside the University, Zametkin said colleges should make their students more aware of the legal ramifications of distributing or accepting prescription drugs illegally.

Health Education’s Mantak said she is planning to create a page on Health Services’ Web site that will inform students of the dangers of using prescription drugs not prescribed to them.

But, she said, she doesn’t want people to “lose sight” of the fact that alcohol and marijuana use are much more of an issue at Brown.

The poll, conducted from March 16 through 18, has a 3.6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. A total of 676 Brown undergraduates completed the poll, which The Herald administered as a written questionnaire to students in the University Mail Room at J. Walter Wilson, outside the Blue Room in Faunce House and in the Sciences Library.

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