MADISON — Last school year, two University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students walked into a campus library with a mission: See how quickly they could score some Adderall, a popular prescription “smart drug” that users say improves their ability to study.
They were good to go in 56 seconds.
All it took was a tap on the shoulder of one woman, a stranger at a table of students studying in silence. Asked if she knew where someone could buy some Adderall, the woman offered to call her friend downstairs who was selling it.
Experts say such easy access and casual acceptance is increasingly common on campuses, including UW-Madison, where students coping with high academic demands are turning to illicit use of Adderall and other stimulants. Adderall is prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The drug, also known to aid weight loss, is readily available for $5 a pill, which some consider a small price for the energy rush it can provide.
“When I first started taking Adderall, I was like Superwoman,” says Alyssa, a recent UW-Madison graduate now studying at a law school in New York. She asked that her real name not be used out of fear it might harm her career.
“You get a little jolt, and you’re just so much more motivated.”
But Alyssa also experienced the downside of the stimulant. A few years ago, she began overusing Adderall and landed in the hospital with an overdose.
An investigation by UW-Madison journalism students, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, found university officials and local law enforcement across the state have not made it a priority to track or crack down on the apparent growing abuse of Adderall, despite health and addiction risks.
Interviews with health-care experts, university officials, police and students found:
- Overall use of Adderall is growing on campuses, and the drug is regularly abused by those with or without a prescription. It helps users stay alert as they cram for tests while coping with hangovers or lack of sleep.
- Adderall is readily available on the black market, usually sold or given away by those with prescriptions.
- Studies indicate long-term users can face side effects including sleep disruption, headaches, dependency and tics.
- Adderall also can cause mood changes, erectile dysfunction and create or exacerbate mental health problems.
- Doctors can be convinced to prescribe the drug by students who claim to have ADHD symptoms.
Despite doctors’ warnings, UW-Madison officials and police appear to have little concern over the abuse of Adderall on campus — findings that echo a 2008 report from The Capital Times. And officials at other Wisconsin campuses are seeing growing use of the prescription stimulant.
While no firm data exist, a survey conducted at an unnamed Midwestern campus and published in 2005 found 44 percent of students knew someone who used illegally obtained stimulants like Adderall — and experts suggest that trend continues. The study found four in 10 students with a stimulant prescription abused the drug at some point.
Despite Adderall’s prevalence and accessibility, UW-Madison does little to address the issue, even among incoming freshmen who participate in Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR). The program offers information ranging from housing options to tips on how to stay healthy and manage personal finances.
Dave Laur, coordinator for the campus’ Center for the First-Year Experience, says alcohol and marijuana are usually covered in-depth, while the rest of the discussion is steered by questions from students and their parents. Adderall usually doesn’t come up, he says.
“We certainly recognize that we have limited time with the students, and have many many topics of importance to cover,” Laur says. “Also we have found that students have a very short attention span for this.”
Students could face months or years behind bars if they convert prescription pills for unauthorized use, especially if the recipient overdoses. In February, a 13-year-old town of Milton boy died after a 14-year-old girl gave him some of her grandmother’s oxycodone. She is now serving a three-year term in juvenile prison, to be followed by two years of supervision.
Federal law also bars college students from getting or keeping federal financial aid if convicted of some drug crimes. Adderall-related arrests on campus are rare but not unheard of, says UW-Madison Police Sgt. Aaron Chapin.
“I know that we have had cases in the past where we’ve arrested people for selling Adderall,” Chapin says. “It’s not as prevalent as abuse of other drugs, alcohol and marijuana.”
Prescription drugs less dangerous?
The effects of Adderall are seen by students as more benign than alcohol or marijuana, says William Frankenberger, the UW-Eau Claire professor who led the 2005 study. Frankenberger, who studies ADHD, describes the prevailing attitude as, “They’re giving it to kids. It must be safe.”
He adds, “I don’t think students realize the side effects associated with stimulant use, so they have no second thoughts about taking a drug that seems to help them concentrate and gives them lots of energy.”
Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, a psychiatrist at UW-Madison’s University Health Services, says some doctors also don’t recognize the dangers of Adderall abuse.
“Physicians haven’t caught up to realize how serious the problem is,” Heiligenstein says. “Emergency room admissions, overdoses, legal problems — everything has skyrocketed.”
About 100 to 150 students come into UHS each semester saying they have ADHD. At most, he says, 1 percent of them actually do.
In reality, “They have learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders,” Heiligenstein says. “ADHD is a well-publicized and simplistic way of understanding lots of different problems, and it’s much more culturally acceptable now than some of the other difficulties are.”
He says UHS tries to properly diagnose students using such criteria as clinical histories, standardized rating scales, parental assessments and careful examination of outside information, such as school records. Still, the use and abuse of Adderall grows, Heiligenstein says, calling it one of the most diverted prescription medicines around.
“There are a lot of physicians who are not well-trained in assessing (ADHD), and they’re getting a lot of pressure from their patients to prescribe it (Adderall).”
At first, drug aided her studies
When used correctly, Adderall helps treat children and adults with ADHD, a serious disorder that causes problems with concentration or hyperactivity and interferes with learning and social functioning.
By 16, Alyssa had struggled her whole life to concentrate, but she had never been diagnosed with ADHD. Her mother, a pharmacist, grew weary of watching her daughter toil over a single subject’s homework for five hours a night.
She recalls her mother telling her pediatrician that her daughter “works way too hard for the grades that she’s getting, and it’s not fair to her.” Her doctor agreed and prescribed 20 milligrams of Adderall.
For Alyssa, the impact was immediate: She bumped her grade point average from a 3.4 on a 4.0 scale to 4.3 with the help of Adderall and advanced placement classes.
“It just made it so much easier to focus,” she recalls. “I hate saying that it’s a miracle drug, but I definitely don’t think I would be where I am today without it.”
The law student says that as an undergraduate, she was repeatedly asked by friends to sell them her pills.
“Wisconsin was insane,” she says. “My roommates, my friends in college, all the time, none of them were prescribed, and they would take it to write a paper, they would take it to go out.
“I was totally tempted. It’s such an easy way to make money.”
But her mother kept close tabs on her medication, doling out pills as Alyssa needed them.
A UW-Madison senior who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity acknowledged she has sold pills from her Adderall prescription. She didn’t want her name used because she had sold the drugs illegally.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who doesn’t take it. It’s like taking Advil,” she says.
She also says it was “pretty easy” to get Adderall legally. “I didn’t get a full examination for my prescription. We just knew I had something …. it was minimal testing.”
Rising abuse of prescription drugs
Dr. Alex Faris, staff psychologist and substance abuse specialist at the University Counseling and Consultation Services at UW-Madison, has noticed a rise in the non-medical use of prescription drugs.
“More students are coming in because they are abusing prescription medicines like Adderall, Xanax or Valium than when I first got here five years ago,” Faris says.
Faris estimates about 5 percent of the 4,000 students treated each year at the university clinic have problems with prescription drugs. Out of those 200 students, Faris estimated about 120 have problems specific to Adderall.
However, he cautions the actual number of students suffering from prescription drug abuse is greater than the number seeking help.
“It’s very tricky to report on those numbers because I’m not sure that the number of people seeking treatment for abuse is a good indication of the seriousness or the prevalence of the problem,” Faris says.
In response to concerns about over-prescription of Adderall, UHS protocols have become increasingly stringent.
“We’ve really raised the threshold for students who want to obtain medication for (ADHD) at UHS,” Faris says. “There’s a rigorous assessment that requires two to four sessions, and we get information from the students and other sources.
“We really go above and beyond because we know that students are sometimes drug seeking.”
Problem not on the ‘radar’ for some
Despite the anecdotal evidence of increasing Adderall use, no one is quite sure how many prescriptions are written at UW-Madison. The consensus from more than a dozen university officials contacted for this story is that no one tracks the number of prescriptions of controlled substances such as Adderall.
Likewise, university officials and police have little data on Adderall abuse, and police say it is not a high priority.
Tonya Schmidt, assistant dean of students at UW-Madison, says in six years, she can recall two instances in which students were charged with misconduct due to illegal use of Adderall.
“We don’t see a ton of Adderall abuse,” Schmidt says. ” We know it’s happening, but we can’t prove it.”
UW-Madison Police have no records of any case during the 2009-10 academic year involving prescription drugs. There were six cases involving prescription drugs during the 2008-09 school year, three involving Adderall.
At UW-Eau Claire, officials say they had no evidence of Adderall abuse and don’t see it as a problem affecting their campus.
“The use of Adderall is not even on our radar here in terms of abusive practices … It’s just not something our students have been engaged in or come up in a situation where we have disciplinary action,” UW-Eau Claire spokesman Mike Rindo says. UW-Eau Claire Police Sgt. Chris Kirchman says he can’t think of any cases involving Adderall.
UW-Milwaukee Police had a handful of arrests for Adderall in the first half of 2010 that resulted in charges. Sgt. Art Koch says Adderall isn’t a special area of focus, but it’s a concern any time students are abusing drugs. Kelly Johnson, associate director of housing at UW-Milwaukee, says her department plans to do more education of students in residence halls about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, including Adderall.
At Marquette University, Dean of Students Stephanie Quade calls Adderall abuse a “silent problem” and acknowledges it’s likely a growing problem on her campus. The drug usually turns up in room searches related to other violations.
“We certainly know it’s an issue on other campuses, so we cannot be naive to think that it wouldn’t be an issue here,” Quade says. “But I have no evidence to bear that out.”
At UW-La Crosse, the story is similar.
Sgt. Scott McCullough doesn’t recall any Adderall cases, and Paula Knudson, assistant chancellor and dean of students, says she knows some students misuse the drug, but it hasn’t “become a focus at this point.”
Matt Vogel, UW-La Crosse community health specialist, teaches a class on the history of drugs and gives about 50 presentations a year on drugs and alcohol. He knows stimulant abuse is present on campus.
“We need to empower young people with accurate and honest information,” Vogel says. “If they’re empowered, I personally feel and I think there’s a lot of evidence to show that they’re much more likely to make a wise decision around substances.”
Risks serious, but many unaware
When students use Adderall without medical supervision or adequate education, they may be oblivious to its risks and side effects. Students may hear that stimulants like Adderall can make sex more enjoyable, but few users realize Adderall can have the opposite effect, says Heiligenstein, the psychiatrist.
“It’s a well-kept secret,” he says. “Erectile dysfunction in males occurs in at least 10 percent of people who take it, if not more.”
In addition, Faris, the staff psychologist at UW-Madison’s counseling service, says students may not realize Adderall can amplify existing mental health problems or create new ones. They also can grow psychologically dependent on the drug, Heiligenstein says.
“They … think that they can’t pass the tests unless they’re taking the drugs,” he says. “It becomes a very destructive cycle that requires them to abuse the medications to succeed. It’s not a good situation.”
Frankenberger, the professor and ADHD expert from UW-Eau Claire, says students without prescriptions risk taking high doses, which can have long-term consequences.
“The longer you take the drug and the higher the dose — and this is what we found in our research — the more side effects and the more troubling the outcomes for the people involved, ” Frankenberger says.
In a 2001 study of middle and high schoolers, Frankenberger found most children using stimulant medications for two or more years developed sleeping difficulties and headaches. In 40 percent of his sample, students developed tics, or involuntary muscle twitches, that they didn’t have before.
From success to addiction
Alyssa experienced striking improvements at school thanks to Adderall. But she discovered the drug’s dark side. When she was an undergraduate, her mother was discovered to have late-stage colon cancer.
“I was going through a real hard time when my mom was diagnosed,” she says. As the pressures of school and her mother’s illness mounted, Alyssa began to change her Adderall habits.
“I’m a little bit of a control freak,” Alyssa says. “Adderall helps you focus and control, so I thought the more I took the more I’d be able to control some sort of situation.”
On a trip to Europe, she overdosed.
“I was drinking and had snorted about 10 milligrams (of Adderall). I had to get my stomach pumped, and I was throwing up,” Alyssa says. “I woke up in the hospital with no recollection of the night.”
She stayed free of alcohol and Adderall for five months after the incident. After talking with a psychiatrist, Alyssa was back on medication.
Instead of Adderall, Alyssa now takes Vyvanse, a different ADHD treatment that she says makes her less anxious. She attributes much of her negative experience to the demands she felt at UW-Madison to balance academics and a frenetic social life.
“When I was at Madison, and going out three or four days a week, most of the days after I was hung over. So I was really crunched for time when I did my work. Here (in New York), since I’m not going out, I have so many more A’s and so much more time to finish my work,” Alyssa says.
“Wisconsin’s such a big party school,” she adds. “The mentality is sort of ‘work hard, play hard.’ I think a lot of people go to the extreme.”
Editor’s note: Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism intern Allie Tempus and UW-Madison journalism student Lavilla Capener contributed to this report, which began in a reporting class taught by Professor Deborah Blum. Adam Riback and Bob Marshall were students in the class, while Alex Morrell was an intern for the Center.