Crossing the line with study drugs

For some students, the side effects of concentration-enhancing drugs like Adderrall are a risk worth taking.


Town was bustling, as people ran from shop to shop, rain bouncing down around them. From inside the coffee shop, all one could see was blurred figures dashing about, the misted windows rendering their anonymity complete, providing an apt setting for an interview with an anonymous source. A student, who we’ll call Ben, glanced up from his coffee, the foam slowly dissipating into the middle of the cup. “You know, I feel pretty bad about this. It’s sort of cheating,” he said, breaking a momentary silence.

The majority of students have been guilty of smudging that incredibly fine line between cheating and breaking the official rules. One doesn’t need to look far: spend a day or two in the arts block and you’ll bitter murmurings about classmates who lied to receive an extension, boasts from the legend who faked his whole bibliography, or the recriminations of the unfortunate plagiariser who got caught. Yet, these are such common measures, frequently carried out by the most desperate students, scrapping for a pass, a 2:1 or a 2:2 depending on their course that we mostly dismiss them. That’s why the “illegal” use of prescription medication is such a fascinating area. Do these psychological stimulants cross that moral line, the line that is already one step beyond what is officially cheating? Does it cross the line, where we as students can legitimately stand up and say that is unreasonable?

Relativity is the crux of the issue. If we are an average arts students, just about getting that low 2:1, working hard, in the run up to deadlines, and lounging around in coffee shops the rest of the term, we’re unlikely to be bothered by the struggling slacker who tries every trick in the book to scrape a pass. However, when it is our own rival, a competing student of equal ability, their bending of the rules is more of a cause for concern. Even then, however, many take the view that the risks of cheating accompany the benefits, and for the most part, the benefits of bringing notes into an exam or using fake references are outweighed by the risks and the costs that come with being caught. It is the hidden side to medication that upsets this relatively successful balance of equilibrium between those who bend the rules and those who do not.


Prior to Ben’s grim statement of fact, we had been discussing his recent use of drugs for studying. He had been using a brand with very similar effects to Adderall, a drug designed to enhance people with ADD ability to focus and concentrate. The effect is similar on those not suffering from ADD, with certain aspects of memory retention being enhanced coupled with an increase in alertness.The effects of the drug differ from person to person, and as Ben never got prescribed it, the drug he took wasn’t catered to his body.

It kicked in fast and hard, and even listening to Ben’s description of his experience felt like I was being sucked into some sort of twisted American pharmaceutical ad.

Despite this, Ben sincerely praised the drug. With essay deadlines looming and little work to show, he felt left with no other option. It kicked in fast and hard, and even listening to Ben’s description of his experience felt like I was being sucked into some sort of twisted American pharmaceutical ad. The frequent visits to Facebook, Reddit and Buzzfeed were gone, no longer was he distracted by the clickbait article that flood the web. “I wanted to work, I’d briefly go onto Facebook only to immediately say to myself what am I doing, and return to my essay. I really wanted to work, I was enjoying it.” His eyes staring at me from across the table were filled with intensity, a real sense of admiration and amazement toward the drug rolled with every sentence he spoke. But there was something else there: fear.


Ben’s most recent experience didn’t go as smoothly as planned. The work he did while the drug was working was great, it was as good as he would normally write, but the time it took him was dramatically reduced. Adderall’s effects don’t last forever. After six hours, the impact was gone. He was back to normality, returning to Facebook with a vengeance. The essay wasn’t finished. With only hours to go and the success of his last dose, there was little stopping him taking another. So that’s what he did.

The following day was spent in bed, experiencing a debilitating comedown. He described it as worse than any other comedown he’s dealt with before.

This is where the fear comes in. There is a risk of addiction when it comes to Adderall and its variants. This risk is not only due to the drug itself, but to its results. In Ben’s case, his return to normality meant that he was going to struggle to finish his essay on time. With a measure of shame, he told me that he took another one at seven o’clock that night. “Six hours of focussed work and I’d be finished and in bed by one a.m., there wouldn’t be any problems.” The drug worked as well as before, focused work ensued, but this time it was accompanied by lingering moments of melancholy. “I felt uneasy, I’d get sudden bouts of anxiety… I went out late for a walk around campus, it was awful, I just felt awful.” The real problems came later when the six hours were up and Ben made it to bed. He lay there for hours but sleep did not come.


Insomnia is an overused diagnosis these days, but there are real side effects of difficult sleeping that accompany Adderall use. For someone who doesn’t take the drug, the double dose in one day compounded this and resulted in a completely sleepless night. The issue became more serious for Ben, as he still hadn’t finished his essay. At eight a.m. when he began to work again, some of the side effects remained with him, the anxiousness and feelings of depression primarily. The following day was spent in bed, experiencing a debilitating comedown. He described it as worse than any other comedown he’s dealt with before.

Yet, his essay was complete, handed in on time. It went well, a fine piece of work, indistinguishable from previous essays that were written over much longer periods. The dilemma of whether or not he would use it again was clearly weighing on his mind as we talked that miserable day. The pros were as clear as the cons, both of which making very convincing arguments. Observing his shudders at remembering the side effects and considering his very real fear of becoming reliant on it, as well as his moral issues with cheating, one would expect that Ben will not be turning to Adderall soon.

As our interview ended and we moved onto idle coffee shop discussions, the intensity in his eyes faded away. The rain continued to beat down as we gathered our gear, ready to make the quick dash down Dame Street back to college. I turned to thank him, saying how difficult it was to get people talking so frankly on these type of controversial issues, joking that I was getting to the point where I was going to have to find some myself if I was ever going to be able to write this article. “I’d stick to the one if you were you. I know next time, I will” he quipped to me as he raised his hood and stepped out into the crowd and disappeared down the road.