For some students, the use of study drugs is so common they don't see it as a problem.

Story highlights

Researcher finds 30% of students have illegally used ADHD drugs Adderall or Ritalin

"I'm more driven. I don't focus on anything else," user says

Expert says drugs like Adderall can produce jitters, headaches, stomach problems

CNN  — 

Jared Gabay is like many other college students. When he has a big test coming up, he turns to what’s called a “study drug” for a little extra boost.

“I’m more driven. I don’t focus on anything else,” the Auburn University senior says about taking the drugs. “If I have a paper, that’s all I’m doing. No distractions, no socializing, just on with it. “

Gabay takes the prescription drug Adderall, designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He doesn’t have ADHD or a prescription, but the drug is not hard for him to get. “It’s easy – not sketchy or perceived in a bad way,” he says. “Maybe a simple text or a phone call. ‘Hey mind if I get some Adderall? I’ve got a long night ahead of me.’” After taking the pill he hits the books in his fraternity house room, pulling an all-nighter studying.

It’s a scene that is playing out at college campuses across the United States.

Alan DeSantis, a professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky, has tracked study drug use there. “It’s abused more than marijuana and easier to get,” he says. DeSantis’ research found that 30% of students at the university have illegally used a stimulant, like the ADHD drugs Adderall or Ritalin. The numbers increase with upperclassmen. Half of all juniors and seniors have used the drugs, the study found, and 80% of upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities have taken them.

Adderall is an amphetamine and can be habit forming. The federal government lists it as a schedule II drug. Drugs in that category have, according to U.S. law “the highest abuse potential and dependence profile of all drugs that have medical utility.”

Dr. Raymond Kotwicki, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University’s school of medicine in Atlanta, says he worries about students who might take these drugs. “They might produce euphoria, they might temporarily make it easier… but in the long run there are significant problems both in terms of thinking, mood problems, maybe even functionality.”

Kotwicki, who also is the medical director at the Skyland Trail mental health treatment facility in Atlanta, says drugs like Adderall can produce jitters, headaches, stomach problems or even eventually lead to psychosis, a mental disorder that includes the loss of contact with reality. Additionally, he worries about pressure on students to be perfect, saying, “If you’re a student and you feel you are not good enough to be able to do things without the aid of external help, that’s an idea that gets reinforced that can lead to a whole bunch of different problems.”

Students apparently don’t see it that way. Another telling statistic from DeSantis’ research at the University of Kentucky is how dangerous the students think these cognitive enhancing stimulants are. They say they see Adderall as slightly more dangerous than the soft drink Mountain Dew and nowhere near as dangerous as drinking beer and smoking.

Taking drugs without a prescription or buying the controlled substances is illegal and students who use the drugs could face prosecution.

But for students like Gabay, use of study drugs is so common they don’t see it as a problem. “I would see how the law is there,” he says. “I consider it kind of an unwritten rule. It’s accepted. … It’s OK if you’re just getting it for one thing. If you’re consistently using it and not prescribed that’s crossing the line.”

Some scientists say cognitive enhancement drugs should be carefully legalized and made available for this kind of use. In the journal Nature in 2008, a commentary by five researchers said, “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function.” They added, “Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.”

Gabay says the drug works for him. “I’m just in a really good mood right now,” he says, leaving a university building. “I just did great on the test. I can still feel some of the effects, but they are starting to wear off.”

He aced the test and got an A in the class. It’s something Gabay has seen happen over and over since he started taking study drugs. He says he used to get Cs, but now with the help of Adderall, it’s B’s and A’s.