For more than two decades, college students have illegally taken prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall to stay awake and hyper-focused while studying. As sales of medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder soar, administrators worry that illegal use also is increasing.
The White House Office of Drug Control voiced concern about the increase in its latest strategy report, which promises to introduce policies in the next few years that will target college students and a range of substance abuse issues.
But cracking down on study drugs is nearly impossible, said several college administrators who have worked on the issue as it has gained wider attention in recent years. Students who abuse study drugs don’t reek of marijuana or show the tell-tale signs of excessive drinking. They rarely end up in hospital beds or jail cells.
“People on Adderall don’t pee in the hallways,” said Daniel Swinton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration and an assistant dean at Vanderbilt University. Study drugs are “kind of a silent issue. Everyone’s aware of it, but I think we’re all focused on the more prevalent one — alcohol.”
Hard to catch
During an average school year, a major local university typically will respond to hundreds of cases involving alcohol, dozens involving drugs and only a handful, at most, involving prescription stimulants, according to a Post analysis of statistics from area schools.
At more than a dozen major universities in the Washington region, there were nearly 1,400 drug-related cases during the past two school years. Of those, only three dozen were related to prescription drugs, most of which were ADHD medications.
When students using study drugs are caught, it is often in connection with another crime. University of Maryland police had three cases involving prescription stimulants in the past two years. Last spring, an officer investigated the smell of pot in a residence hall and found a student with marijuana and Adderall. During traffic stops in December 2009 and February 2010, officers found pills when they searched cars.
When misused, prescription stimulants can cause an irregular heart beat, panic attacks and in rare cases death, especially when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. These prescription medications are similar to cocaine and can be addictive. But experts say there is little evidence of a widespread medical crisis or growing rates of addiction.