Secret to Success

The rise of prescription drugs

By John Knight, editor; illustrations by Sarah Wool, editor

When Calvin Snipes* was in sixth grade, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and mild dyslexia. Immediately, he was prescribed a 10mg daily dose of Adderall and eight years later as a Colorado College senior, he still keeps a bottle of the blue pills in his desk. Some blocks he takes it often, some blocks almost never, but he is certain that his college experience would have been different without the drug.

“If I hadn’t had it,” Snipes says, “especially on the block plan, everything would have taken much longer and I would have been more stressed. It has made my time here manageable.” 

Snipes is what one might call an average Colorado College student: he attends class, does his homework, parties on weekends, goes skiing, and enjoys block breaks with his friends. He acknowledges that doing his work is an important part of being at school, but maintains that it’s not the only worthwhile activity at CC. Like the old motto, Snipes works hard to play hard, and like all good workers, he knows what tools to use to get the job done. 

Adderall, Ritalin, Vivance, and other prescription amphetamines increase activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for higher levels of cognitive thinking, thereby increasing the brain’s capacity to focus on a given task. They are most often prescribed to people diagnosed with ADD to help them follow one activity through to completion and resist both internal and external distractions. Since there are unlimited venues for procrastination and entertainment on a college campus and also limitless pressure to perform and succeed, the use of attention-enhancing drugs has infiltrated campuses across the nation and, in some cases, have become the norm.

“We are so conditioned to be entertained all the time,” Snipes says, “of course it’s hard to sit in class for three hours and pay attention.” Adderall helps Snipes accomplish the many things he wants to do so he can get on with the play. “It’s a tool,” he says, “just like books on tape and computers are tools. But I try not to depend on it—you never know when you’ll have to do it on your own.”

It is difficult to measure the actual prevalence of “study drugs” on CC’s campus. While there are only so many people with prescriptions, drugs are drugs, and if you want them, you can get them. Studies on Adderall and similar stimulants range from reports of 4 percent of undergraduates using, to more than 35 percent for off-label purposes. More competitive schools have higher numbers, and usage increases during midterms and finals.

Duh. If you’ve ever been to the library on the last three nights of the block, you know that’s when the chemicals are really pumping. The line for the coffee cart is ten deep and there are so many people on the deck smoking, it could be confused with a party. And in an odd way, it’s all sort of encouraged.

“CC is a unique academic environment,” William Dove, a psychologist who supervises CC’s counseling center, remarks, “and the block plan adds an additional time crunch to students’ heavy work load.”

While the school certainly doesn’t encourage chemical use as a crutch for productivity, the emphasis it places on success while stressing its own competitiveness is itself a good excuse to have another cup of coffee. Of course there are many people here who do not drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, or take prescription amphetamines and still excel in their studies, but for many, it often comes down to one or the other: work or play.

Valerie Fielding,* a CC senior, takes Vivance (a similar, though less intense form of Adderall) two or three times a week so that she can stay up and finish her homework. She doesn’t have her own prescription for the drug, but friends who do give it to her for free.

“It makes me focused and it keeps me awake,” Fielding says. “I started taking it my junior year when I had a lot of work to do…I can’t afford to get distracted.”

In the end, there are only so many hours in the day and taking advantage of all CC has to offer at once—the outdoors, the academics, the friends—is impossible. Eventually we all make our choices and our concessions; but what if we didn’t have to? 

In the past twenty years, along with the rise of neuroscience’s popularity in American culture, there has been the increase in prescriptions for drugs like Adderall that tinker with chemical balances in the brain. Snipes suggests this increase is evidence of a culture in which people want to do everything and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it possible. Our day planners are packed from dawn to dusk and we still can’t do everything we want, but  we live in a world that increasingly demands we try. “Neuro-enhancement” is now the new frontier, especially in the halls of academia and, for many, it seems foolish to ignore a pill that could offer an advantage.

“I think this drug is very telling about our society,” Snipes speculates. He thinks that the massive technological advances of the past 2,000 years have left people scrambling to keep up and ultimately seeking out chemical solutions. “Adderall,” he says, “is a product of that dilemma.”

Studies have found that although Vivance or Adderall might make someone more focused, the overall advantage the drugs actually provide is questionable. Essentially, these drugs only increase attention span—they don’t make anyone smarter. The pervasive label “neuroenhancer” is misleading, and Dove scowls when I use it.

“It just makes things click more quickly,” he says. “It doesn’t make things click that wouldn’t have clicked before.” He goes on to acknowledge that the drugs are often helpful for people who struggle to pay attention, but stresses that it’s unclear how much credit should be given to the chemicals. “If [students] believe they’ll do better,” he says, describing the placebo effect of taking drugs to do work, “they probably will.”

Fielding admits that this is part of the reason she takes Vivance. “I believe in the placebo effect,” she says. “It makes me feel like I can study forever.”

But at what point does the use of these drugs cease to be just helpful and morph into the realm of cheating? What makes Adderall different than a pot of coffee? “It’s a hard question to answer,” says Jimmy Singer, speaking for the CC Honor Council, the student-run organization which watches academic integrity, not student conduct. “The Honor Code seems simple but there are so many variables that come in and make it complicated.” 

The Honor Code students are required to sign on their academic work includes the pledge that “I have neither given nor received any unauthorized assistance on this work.” It is an ambiguous phrase since what constitutes “unauthorized aid” is continually being reinterpreted. But, as it stands now, if a student is found to have used prescription drugs without a prescription, it becomes a disciplinary issue, not one of academic integrity, regardless of why the student took the drugs.

“What students have to understand,” says Ginger Morgan, Associate Dean of Students, “is that the more federal controls and protocols there are on a medication, the consequences of sharing pills…get more intense. Because many of these drugs are governed by strict protocols, the trouble students face can be quite serious if they participate in sharing these meds with others or taking them in ways not prescribed. Students found responsible for supplying other students with drugs are in most cases suspended or dismissed from CC.”

“As community members,” Singer says about the Honor Council, “we don’t like to see students who need to use these drugs illegally to study…it is a sad circumstance, but it is ultimately a question of student conduct, not academic integrity….There is a difference between the use and abuse of these drugs. They can be very helpful for the people who need them, but they are serious drugs and the line is a hard one to draw.”

Using prescriptions as the qualifying circumstance is not as straightforward as it might seem. Like obtaining medical marijuana, it’s not difficult to make a doctor’s appointment, go in complaining about the right things, and walk out with a prescription. “I’ve never heard of anyone being denied,” says Snipes. “It’s too easy.”

Dove, who has seen prescriptions in the hands of many students, agrees that ADD is over- diagnosed. “Physicians will be the first to admit that,” he says, “but at a certain point, what else can they do?” Although Dove is confident that there are many ways to cope with ADD, they are not always self-evident and often take time to develop.

Snipes echoes this sentiment. “I wish in middle school I’d had the chance to know what the problem was and how to fix it,” he says. “I didn’t know how I learned…but now I know what I have to do to succeed. I’m not stupid but now I know what my strengths and weaknesses are.” One of these strengths is his ability to use Adderall selectively and responsibly as a tool. 

But Fielding and Snipes are both wary of the drug’s drawbacks. Amphetamines often decrease appetites, make muscles sore, and can result in headaches and even migraines. Both Snipes and Fielding say that whenever they take these drugs, they don’t feel like themselves and avoid them when they can. But they both know people who take these stimulants purely for recreational use.

“I get pretty introverted and I stop feeling a lot of things,” Snipes says. “When something’s funny, I have to force myself to laugh . . . it just makes me feel pretty bad.”

“I pretty much have to smoke a bowl afterwards to fall asleep,” Fielding says. “When I’m on it I have a one track mind that doesn’t include rest.” Fielding hopes that she won’t have to take Vivance after college, but has to admit she would if she needed to.

As the drugs have become more and more popular, their use has spread from grade school classrooms, to college campuses, to the office. As the pressures of production seep down from the professional world to the college and high school experience, so do the drugs used in adolescent achievement creep upwards. And the consequences are yet to be known. As the pioneering generation of “self-medicators,” it will be a long time before we truly know the effects of the constant chemical balancing act we are performing. 

“I read somewhere that the human heart only has a certain number of heart-beats in a lifetime,” says Snipes. “I always worry about that when I take Adderall because my heart beats like crazy.”

Regardless, the ease with which these drugs can be procured and their relative effectiveness in converting people into twelve-hour work zombies makes it unlikely that they will disappear, despite the side-effects. As long as classroom and office pressures increase, people will continue to find ways to get the advantages they need. But students like Snipes who also seek out alternative and more wholesome learning strategies suggest that, perhaps Adderall and its cohorts are only a temporary fix. 

“For me, the question of Adderall isn’t about drug abuse,” says Snipes. “It’s about how I learn.”∼

 Secret to Success



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2 responses to “Secret to Success

  1. linda mccandless

    way interesting. made me understand how students are using script drugs to enhance learning. liked how you wove real people into the story — and not just one.

  2. Great article, Cipher.

    Drugs that enhance cognitive thinking are definitely highly sought after across colleges in America. And, the increased levels of productivity and concentration have proven to be advantageous (as you stated).

    However, when does this advantage fall subject to moral values or governing from a social institution (government is trying to regulate it but cannot seem to get the job done)?

    I wonder if people will ever feel like taking adderall (when it is not prescribed) is unjust and moreover what kind of social institution (college “doping” drug testing?) it would take to regulate the use of this wonder-drug.

    I recently wrote a post about adderall, which can be found here, if you’re interested.

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