Study addicts: Abusing prescription drugs comes at great risk, little reward

Jordan Bell has a lot of studying to do before finals.

The Hastings junior typically spends 20 hours looking over class material and practicing calculations for his accounting classes.

Several of his classmates have found an easier way to get through all the work, Bell said. Of the five students in his study group, he said three are using Adderall without prescriptions to stay focused.

"I can't speak from experience about the effects it has, but I don't think it's necessary," Bell said.

As final exams and project deadlines approach, students find themselves busy struggling to juggle demands of college life. Students at Central Michigan University, seeking to keep themselves focused on school work when they’d rather rest, have used prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin in the hopes of improving their grades.

Adderall and Ritalin are amphetamine drugs prescribed to patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Medication is prescribed to help patients focus and control behavior.

Both are classified as Schedule II drugs by the U.S. government, meaning they are likely to be abused.

Several students said they know friends who use Adderall without prescriptions, despite the risks, in order to focus before exams.

Petoskey sophomore Travis Johnson said he doesn’t use Adderall or Ritalin to focus on studying, but has friends who do.

“I don’t condone (non-prescribed use) in any way,” he said. “I think you should have your own work ethic.”

Johnson said he understands the stress finals can bring to students as he prepares for history exams. He said his friend used Adderall to prepare for a test and it helped him stay focused on studying.

“I think everyone is under pressure during finals, and if you don’t have that ability, people look to other means,” Johnson said.

Counseling and Special Education Professor Larry Ashley said although stimulants might provide some initial benefit to those without prescriptions, drugs alone won't improve grades in the long run. Ashley researches addiction disorders and is the project manager of the Counseling and Addiction curriculum.

“It’s like when you cram for a test and a week later you can’t remember anything you’ve studied," he said.

Adderall and Ritalin use outside of medical purposes can lead to sleep deprivation, Ashley said. Users of the drug might feel more awake, but their bodies are still exhausted from lack of sleep.

"We're not designed to go non-stop for days without sleep," said Lt. Cameron Wassman of the CMU police department.

During the last four years only 3 percent of drug incidents handled by CMU Police have involved prescription drugs. There have been 10 during this time period. Thomas Idema, director of the Office of Student Conduct, said he similarly sees very few cases of prescription drug abuse.

“People assume if you have a bottle, it’s your bottle,” he said.

Because Adderall and Ritalin are both Schedule II drugs, possession of 25-50 grams without a prescription carries a penalty of up to four years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines.

Students caught with prescription drugs which don't belong to them can also be disciplined by the university. They cannot possess, use, manufacture, produce or distribute any controlled substance.

For a first offense, students typically pay $325 in sanctions and are placed on academic probation. A second violation can lead to suspension. Idema said the university can adjust punishment based on the circumstances.

Despite the legal risks, students find ways to supply prescription medications. Ashley said students have talked to him about going to doctors and describing symptoms for themselves in order to obtain a prescription.

“Most of them are not written by psychiatrists, they’re written by family practitioners,” he said.

Adderall and Ritalin can sell on campus for anywhere from $20 to $30 and more, based on demand, Ashley said. Prescription sales often occur between friends and at parties.

Ashley said physicians need to be trained to understand addiction and drug abuse before giving out prescriptions.

“One of the things I’ve worked on for many years and continue to work on is training physicians about prescribed addictions because they hardly get any training in medical school,” Ashley said. “I’ve seen studies that have shown in the United States, in four years in (medical) school, the average amount of training they get is 40 minutes. It depends on the medical school, but that’s abysmal — that’s scary.”

Stories of dealers describing symptoms to receive prescription medications are common.

“I bet you if you go into most doctors and say ‘I’m anxious, I’m nervous’ they’ll write you out a (prescription),” Ashley said.

It’s also common for students with prescriptions to share and sell pills, and students have told Ashley stories of searching a friend’s bathroom looking for prescription medications.

Whitney Brooks, a counselor at the CMU Counseling Center, said students should be aware of how prescription drugs might react with other substances they ingest, particularly alcohol.

“There could be some serious complications with their bodies,” she said.

Students who use Adderall or Ritalin who do not suffer from ADHD might develop an over-reliance on them, Brooks said.

Mixing the drug with other substances can lead to physical and mental problems when the drugs interact.

“Some people, they take too many and don’t like that feeling of being so high all the time, they take depressant-type drugs to bring them down, so you can get in that yo-yo effect,” he said.

The “yo-yo effect” is a pattern prescription drug users fall into when they constantly need stimulants to stay focused and depressants to relax, leading to a cycle of drug use. Ashley said the opposing effects of depressants and stimulants, such as alcohol and amphetamines, can have unintended consequences for the user. Rather than cancelling each other out, the two compete.

“Math is different when you’re talking about drugs,” he said. “One and one is not two. One and one can be 12 because there’s a synergistic effect if you mix one drug with another.”

Farmington Hills senior Jonathon Justice’s system died in February, and an autopsy revealed he had a blood alcohol level of .349, much higher than the .08 legal limit.

Justice also had evidence of amphetamines and benzodiazepine, a psychoactive drug used to help with insomnia and anxiety. Police said his body shut down because of the amount of toxins in his system.

Michigan State Police did not identify what amphetamine Justice had taken.

Ashley said because of how “awake” stimulants make the user feel, they might not realize just how drunk they are.

“Drinking alcohol on top of prescription can kill you,” he said. “There’s a reason why (you) don’t drink after you take medication.”

Bell said he will continue to study as final exams approach. Although most of his study group members continue to use Adderall to stay focused, Bell said he wants to prepare for exams based on his own work ethic.

"You should be able to study effectively on your own," he said.