The privilege pill

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • April 23, 2014

The light from a lamp glints off the aluminum surface of the Red Bull cans lined up along the back of the desk. Fingers are poised over the keyboard, tense and unmoving. A hand reaches into a backpack and pulls out a little baggy, shaking it until a small round pill falls into the palm. The substance is swallowed. Its consumer turns back to the laptop and waits for the drug to kick-in.

The pill goes by the names  Vitamin-A, kiddy cocaine, and the smart drug. It’s reliable, it works fast, and it’s easy to find, especially at colleges in the Northeast. It’s Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But students without the disorder are doping to get a superhuman effect. Pop an Addie and you become highly focused and industrious for hours, completing work in a fraction of the time it would usually take. The pill isn’t making you smarter, per se, but it increases your productivity. Despite its tempting benefits, taking Adderall non-medically is not only dangerous to one’s health, but an abuse of privilege.

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe  enhanced abilities in healthy people due to non-medical use of drugs like Adderall, and the ethical issues that ensue. We’re living in the age of “cosmetic neurology,” but it’s a practice exclusive only to those with a disposable income to afford the pills or who have access to health insurance to cover expensive prescriptions. These little pills are just one more rung in the economic disparities we see in higher education, and with every purchase and swallow, the  wide gaps between students’ socioeconomic classes expand a little more.

Adderall isn’t cheap. On most campus black markets, one pill, which is good for an evening of work, ranges from $5 to 11, according to StreetRx. A one-time purchase isn’t going to break the bank, but if you become a regular user, it gets expensive. Who can afford this financial venture? According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, certain demographic factors are more common among nonprescription users. Consumers are more often white, male, members of fraternities or sororities, and have lower grade point averages. Students with a history of drug and alcohol use are also more likely to take stimulants for nonmedical reasons. The drug seems to help these students play catch-up. We’ve all felt the pressure of a ticking clock in the wee hours of the morning, but Adderall’s most common abusers have an unfair advantage in their education — they shake a little bottle and get a big boost. 

It’s easy to understand the temptation of a pill that can help you focus and complete your work more quickly, but this quick-and-easy remedy hurts users. There’s an American tendency to seek shortcuts. From dropping pounds to improving our sex lives, a pill will do the job. But taking Adderall shortchanges users because they aren’t learning critical work skills at a crucial point in their lives. School provides a safety net to learn to manage time and build a work ethic. Self-motivation and self-discipline are skills that will serve students for the rest of their lives. 

Recreational users also forget that for many prescribed users, Adderall is necessary, and abusing the drug trivializes attention deficit disorder. Reducing ADHD to a list of symptoms to get a supply to use non-medically is not okay, but the practice is widespread for those who can pocket it. An experiment at the University of Kentucky found that students could successfully get a false positive diagnosis after just five minutes of Googling ADHD symptoms. Someone without this condition shouldn’t get to play dress-up and try on the disorder to ease his/her academic woes.

Besides, Adderall abuse is accompanied by a Paula Deen-sized grocery list of self-inflicted side effects. College students have a very casual attitude toward Adderall, but it’s not equivalent to coffee or energy drinks. Adderall is a DEA Schedule II substance, as are morphine, oxycodone, meth, and cocaine. It has a high potential for abuse and can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. Despite these warnings and strict regulations by the DEA, only 2 percent of students nationwide said that its use is “very dangerous.” This shrug-and-swallow practice has led to a 276 percent increase in emergency room visits involving Adderall misuse from 2004 to 2009. When you make the choice to take a drug to get good grades, you are injuring your body to get ahead temporarily. Is it worth it? 

I have a friend back home who takes Adderall for her ADHD, except sometimes she skips doses. She wants to be a comedian and is part of an improv group, and feels that when she’s  on Adderall, she’s not as funny. She feels the drug hinders her creativity. She is someone who needs the drug, but doesn’t want to take it because she doesn’t feel like her authentic self. She wishes she didn’t have to be on Adderall. I’m not encouraging people to skip taking their medicine, but if you don’t need it, don’t take it. You can be the best version of yourself sans drugs. I’m advocating authenticity. I’m advocating enduring the work and the grime because you’ll come out honest and stronger.