How students illegally buy prescriptions to finish their work and have a good time
By Marc Phillips
When teenage smoking peaked in the 1970s, parents were urged to check their children for cigarettes. When underage drinking became prevalent in society, parents were commanded to put a lock on the family liquor cabinet. When prescription drug abuse soared among adolescents, watchdog organizations stressed the importance of flushing excess pills. But when parents send their children off to an independent college setting, without constant adult supervision, they wonder if any of the previous lessons stick.
In a study by Martha J. Farah, director at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, as many as 25 percent of students on some college campuses admitted to abusing prescription drugs. In fact, because there is little regulation of prescription medication and pills are so easy to conceal, it is almost impossible to actually enforce laws. It is illegal to re-sell prescription drugs, but when college students have five papers, two tests and an oral presentation due tomorrow morning, the temptation to ease a problem by popping a pill seems like a pleasant idea.
Adam* is an Ithaca College freshman who openly admits to buying prescription pills from a dealer on campus. Adderall, a drug typically prescribed to people with ADHD, is his pill of choice. He explained how $5 per capsule is the average, but it depends on the strength—initial or extended release. Adam has used Adderall to help him buckle down and concentrate during finals last fall.
“I only use [Adderall] every once in a blue moon,” he said. When on the drug, he is able to concentrate better. “I once knocked out a five-page paper in two hours,” he laughed.
At such an affordable price-point, it is no wonder why pills are seeing a surge in popularity.
“Almost 60 percent of students have been offered an opportunity to try prescription stimulants by their junior year of college in the United States,” said Amelia Arria, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for Drug Abuse Research in a 2008 Reuters article.
Non-prescription users of Adderall call it the “study drug” and say how many extra hours of studying they are able to accomplish with the pill in their system. In a 2006 article, William Frankenberger, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire stated, “If you can take a drug that allows you to stay awake through finals week and concentrate on relatively boring topics, you can see how the word would spread.” Frankenberger raises a valid point—instant-gratification is infectious. When work must be done in a timely manner, students will do anything it takes to compete with classmates.
The abuse of prescription pills can be severe, but with Adderall, the only negative side effect for Adam is a loss of appetite. In other people, the side effects can be as severe as dizziness, vomiting and weight-loss. Occasionally popping an “Addy”—the pill’s street name—should not cause the long-term effects listed above. However, prolonged usage can form a dependency and ruin one’s natural body chemistry. Adderall controls the brain’s neurotransmitters, which lends itself to addiction.
When I asked a group of my friends if they knew of any prescription drug dealers on campus, many initially gave a blank stare, followed with, “How do you not know a guy?” One might laugh at first, but in reality, there is a niche market on campus for ADHD medication. Alyssa* said, “There’s a guy in my building. I don’t use him, but I know of other people on my floor who stop there during midterms and finals.”
More sources for these quick-fix pills are appearing. Online pharmacies have grown in popularity due to the ease of use and 24/7 shopping hours. In 1999, Drugstore.com became one of the few websites given accreditation by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Anne Marshall, director of public relations for Drugstore.com, is not allowed to speak publicly about people using the website to abuse drugs. But she did explain the actual process for attaining legitimate pills.
All prescriptions must be verified with the patient and doctor. Copies of the doctor’s script can be faxed to Drugstore.com’s office for processing. The company sells legitimate prescriptions and cautions against dealing with shady pharmacies.
“Legitscript.com is a database for looking up safe online pharmacies,” Marshall said.
Sadly, with select students acting as dispensaries, the source of the pills can be vague. While excess pills are often sold, the rise of questionable online pharmacies has added fuel to this dangerous fire. Counterfeit drugs from illegitimate vendors make up the rest of this lucrative market. Buying one bottle of faux Adderall can fetch a drug dealer several hundred dollars; student clients are none the wiser. Some websites tout how no prescriptions are needed. But that is often a warning sign of illegal business. Creative dealers could see this as an opportunity to pay for a semester’s worth of textbooks.
In addition to taking prescription Adderall and other ADHD medications, students have found another valuable commodity: painkillers. During the college years—ages 18 to 22—most oral surgeons recommend wisdom teeth removal. As a result, leftover Percocet can be sold for as much as $15 a pill, according to Alyssa. In reality, a patient will only need a few of them over a week to help reduce oral pain. However, patients may fib the number of pills they need in order to get extra dosages. One duped doctor often leads to a few extra crisp bills in an opportunistic patient’s wallet.
According to Brad Stone, director of communications for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), a 2008 study ranks the rate of incidence for illicit drugs at 19.6 percent for young adults between the ages of 18 to 25.
Stone said, “More information is available online, and we break down the data by geography and other various ways.” SAMHSA takes several influences into account when analyzing data such as age, gender, level of education, and ethnicity among other factors.
“Rates [of illicit drug abuse] have remained steady for the 18 to 25 age group,” Stone said.
Additionally, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health collects and analyzes data every year. It is still too early to view 2009’s findings, but according to past trends, the rates have reached a plateau.
Various interviews with Ithaca College students revealed many instances of prescription drug abuse begining in the suburbs. According to a 2008 Reuters story, the classic example is Sarah Roisman—a high school newspaper editor and star athlete. Roisman was from an upper-middle class suburb of Philadelphia and at age 11, she was prescribed Klonopin, a muscle relaxant, to quell seizures. The trouble began three years later at age 14… after the seizures ended. Roisman, who was addicted, and her friends would raid their medicine cabinets and try different drug cocktails to explore the effects. This youthful innocence towards trying lethal non-prescribed drugs continues to echo across college campuses.
Keeping up with the Joneses is the basis for prescription abuse in my affluent New Jersey suburb. During finals week at my high school, certain academically driven students would whisper about “popping an Addy” to complete Advanced Placement study guides in a few hours. Ten bucks seems like a small price to pay for an A. That’s not to say that all the successful people at my school popped pills. Hard work and constant review will ultimately help students learn information the proper way.
Students often fancy pills to plow through piles of paperwork. While the problem may not be escalating on our campus, the fact of the matter is that it attracts the naïve. Students assume they are purchasing safe pills. The prescription pills sold at a typical CVS Pharmacy often bare striking resemblance to counterfeits from the Netherlands.
Students will always abuse prescription drugs—it’s a simple, irrefutable fact. Many abusers find something exhilarating about breaking the law, or “getting ahead” by whatever means necessary. By that same token, students should be educated about the side effects. The hours after the “crash.” For those who purchase pills in a bottle, warnings appear on the label. For those who pay-per-pill, a far-reaching PSA campaign should be targeted to 18 to 23 year olds. Risking one’s health for a good grade is never worth it.
“Get at least seven hours of sleep. Make sure you eat three meals a day and drink plenty of fluids. Make a study schedule and plan ahead; that way you are not cramming last minute,” recommended Nanette Vega, the director of the William W. Sandler Jr. Center for Alcohol and other drug education at the University of Miami, in a 2008 Miami Hurricane story.
Over time, the drug du jour will lose its glory and eventually stagnate at lower levels of incidence. Just like cigarettes, we can only hope that enough students will see the firsthand effects of dependence and steer clear of the habit. But alas, there is an easy prescription for getting ahead on your paper! Log out of Facebook, clear off your desk, and crack open that once-used textbook—it’s time to work.
*Names of students have been changed.
Marc Phillips is a freshman integrated marketing communications major. His anti-drug? Hugs. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.