Laura resisted taking “study drugs” throughout her first year, despite hearing other students talk about how much they helped them focus. Having procrastinated up to her second-year exam season, Laura faced a workload that seemed “humanly impossible.” She purchased Adderall XR through a friend who had a connection, and used it to stay up all night and do readings. Laura has used study drugs every time her workload has become too much ever since; she is currently in fourth year. “The risks don’t really cross my mind when I’m desperate for good marks,” she said.
The use of so-called “study drugs” for academic aid without a prescription seems to be an unspoken reality at U of T. Students interviewed for this piece report the common use and ready availability of drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Concerta, which are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Students cite pressure to do well in school as their main reason for using study drugs. They report that U of T’s competitive academic environment — combined with procrastination, work, and/or personal commitments — sometimes leads to the feeling that prescription stimulants are the only remaining option to succeed. Students report that they often purchase these drugs through student dealers who have prescriptions. “Everyone knows that U of T is a tough university to do well in, and you always feel like you’re competing with your entire class. It’s like survival of the fittest, and I felt it would give me a competitive edge to do well,” said Jesse, a recent U of T graduate.
“If you have other things going on besides school, it makes you do things that you otherwise wouldn’t do,” said Carmen, a recent U of T graduate.
“Study drugs” are psychoactive drugs classed as stimulants, meaning that they temporarily increase mental and/or physical function. Canadian data on the use of these drugs without a prescription is limited. According to those interviewed, the street value of these drugs is $10 – $15 per pill, depending on the dosage.
Students report intensely sharpened focus and increased wakefulness during use. “I was a little fidgety at first, it felt really stimulating. Then it was like tunnel vision, like you’re very focused, and not aware of or don’t care about anything besides what you’re working on,” said Laura of her experience with Adderall. “I zoomed through readings no problem.”
“I would feel really wired and awake, and things in my environment would distract me less. It was kind of like tunnel vision, metaphorically speaking,” said Jesse, a recent U of T graduate, of his use of Concerta. Students also reported that their increased focus also applied to pursuits other than schoolwork. “It changes your dynamic so you get almost obsessed with whatever you focus on, whether it be an assignment or a game on your laptop,” said Carmen.
Stimulants can cause negative side effects like anxiety, sleep disruption, and loss of appetite coupled with weight loss. They are also known to be habit-forming. Serious side effects, more common with high doses, include chest pain, shortness of breath, seizures, hallucinations, and mood disturbances like mania. “After they wore off, I tended to get mentally and physically exhausted. One time I took too many — three low-dose Ritalin pills within a span of six hours — and I got a panic attack,” said Jesse.
“I took two Ritalin, and about an hour and a half later, my boyfriend found me sitting in one of the Robarts stacks, surrounded by books, just completely strung out and freaking out,” said Carmen, who explained that she had also been severely sleep-deprived at the time.
Frederic, a fourth-year student, originally took Adderall without a prescription before seeking help from Accessibility Services and a psychiatrist for what he thought might be a genuine attention deficit problem. “Honestly, the whole process was much more simple and easy to get through than I’d anticipated. Anyone who wanted to get access to these drugs, and could get a referral to a psychiatrist, could do it,” he said.
Jack, another student who sought out a prescription after dabbling in the use of Concerta and Dexedrine without a prescription, echoed this sentiment. He said that he initially went to Accessibility Services, and Counselling And Psychological Services (CAPS), looking for talk therapy as well as a prescription for what he considered to be a debilitating procrastination and attention deficit problem. “But there was such a long wait time for talk therapy that the most readily available option was to take drugs, so I did,” he said. He added that he experienced extreme side effects, including mood, sleep, and personality disturbances. His psychiatrist’s solution, he said, was to put him on a higher dose. “At one point I spent 12 hours sitting in the exact same position, tweaking the layout of a mind map that was supposed to be my to-do list. This was the point where I started to question whether I should continue this medication.”
Even without a prescription, students report that study drugs are relatively easy to find at U of T. “Everyone knows that it happens, and virtually anyone on campus can find it. It’s a risk but it’s almost like an ‘everyone is doing it’ kind of thing,” said Laura.
“Amongst the people that I know within my class, quite a number of them did them, and even in class I would randomly overhear people talking about taking them,” said Jesse. Frederic said that how easy it is to find these drugs depends on who you know, but added that he doubted that anyone who wanted to find them would have a serious problem doing so.
Most students interviewed do not think that the use of study drugs is a form of cheating, arguing that study drugs increase the speed with which they can complete work, but not the quality of the work itself. “The reason a lot of people see it as cheating is that they think of it like a steroid that increases your mental capacity to perform a task. But the way I look at it, it’s just accelerating the talents you already have. It doesn’t make me smarter, it just makes me faster,” said Laura.
“I think it’s completely ridiculous to claim that the use of study drugs is a form of cheating. The medical community is eager to overprescribe these drugs, and attention problems are symptomatic of our generation,” said Frederic.
Michael Vipperman, a graduate at U of T, said that “Dexedrine did not improve my command of the material, but it did make it easier to put my meagre understanding onto paper.”
Frederic stated that one of the downsides of study drugs is that it gives users an unrealistic idea of how long it takes to complete work. He explained that his use of study drugs made it more difficult to get work done without them.
The possession and sale of study drugs, which are Schedule III restricted drugs in Canada, is illegal without a prescription. U of T, along with every other university in North America, does not have an official academic policy on the use of these drugs without a prescription. Althea Blackburn-Evans, acting director, media relations at U of T, said that the university is not aware of a case brought to the University Tribunal involving the use of study drugs without a prescription. She added that whether or not this would constitute an academic offence depends on the particular case, and is ultimately up to the University Tribunal.
*Names have been changed in this piece.