In preparation for finals, some students stock up on Red Bull. Others reload their Starbucks cards in anticipation of coffee-fueled nights. But for some students who sneak under the radar at Harvard, reading period entails a trip to the pharmacy or their entryway’s drug dealer.
Jessica, who asked that her name be changed for this article, takes an Adderall extended-release pill when she feels pressure to meet a deadline.
“I think of it as an escape route,” says the freshman. “If I get really desperate I have something that can save me.”
Jessica, who has not been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder—the condition that Adderall is officially prescribed to treat—only uses the pills when she has a paper due the next day or a big exam to study for. Since she does not have a prescription, Jessica buys Adderall XR—usually at a cost of $5 per 20-milligram pill—from her peers.
Adderall XR came onto the market in 2001 and quickly passed Ritalin to become the most popular “study drug,” according to a 2006 study by Northeastern University professor Christian Teter.
As an amphetamine, the drug is classified alongside cocaine and opium as a Schedule II controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency. But for harried students seeking improved concentration, alertness, and even a sense of euphoria, the threat of the law serves as little deterrent to taking the little orange pill.
A DARKER SHADE OF ORANGE
Bianca, another freshman whose name has been changed, reflects on her first experience taking Adderall soon after she started high school.
“It just felt so, so good,” she says. “Even though I couldn’t sleep, it felt awesome. After that I started taking it a lot. During the next two months, I took it every day.”
Bianca started using the drug to help her with her schoolwork, then came to rely on it more when she realized it doubled as a weight loss method. But she soon learned first-hand why Schedule II drugs including Adderall are considered to have a high potential for abuse.
She found herself hospitalized in ninth grade. Two months of daily use had taken their toll: her weight had plummeted from 130 to 94 pounds, and she had not had a full night of sleep in weeks.
“By the time I was actually hospitalized, I was kind of fucked up,” she admits with a slight laugh. “I wanted more weight loss—that was one reason for taking it—but I also had become psychologically dependent on it. I really loved it.”
Though she obtained her Adderall legally—she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder after her parents divorced when she was ten—Bianca had saved her first bottle of pills, only turning to the drug in high school on the eve of a big paper deadline.
Before Bianca’s hospitalization, her concerned mother scheduled regular meetings for her daughter at an eating disorder clinic, but Bianca found ways to trick her doctors.
“I would stop taking the medicine two days before a meeting so that I would not have the amphetamine in my blood,” she recalls.