Last school year, two UW-Madison journalism students walked into a campus library with a mission: See how fast they could score some Adderall, a popular prescription “smart drug” that users say improves their ability to study.
They were good to go in 56 seconds.
All it took was a tap on the shoulder of one woman, a stranger at a table of students studying in silence. Asked if she knew where someone could buy some Adderall, the woman offered to call her friend downstairs, who was selling it.
Experts say such easy access and casual acceptance is increasingly common on campuses, including UW-Madison, where students coping with academic demands are turning to illicit use of Adderall and other stimulants. Adderall is prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“When I first started taking Adderall, I was like Superwoman,” said Alyssa, a recent UW-Madison graduate now studying at a law school in New York. She asked that her real name not be used out of fear it might harm her career. “You get a little jolt, and you’re just so much more motivated.”
But Alyssa also experienced the downside of the stimulant, which is commonly available for $5 a pill. A few years ago, she began overusing Adderall, overdosed and landed in the hospital.
An investigation by UW-Madison journalism students, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, found university officials and local law enforcement across the state have not made it a priority to track or crack down on the apparent growing abuse of Adderall, despite health and addiction risks.
Interviews with health care experts, university officials, police and students found:
• Overall use of Adderall is increasing on campuses, and the drug is regularly abused by those with or without a prescription.
• Adderall is readily available on the black market, usually sold or given away by those with prescriptions.
• Studies indicate long-term users face side effects including sleep disruption, headaches, dependency and tics. Adderall also can cause mood changes, erectile dysfunction and create or exacerbate mental health problems.
• Doctors can be convinced to prescribe the drug by students who claim to have ADHD symptoms.
• Despite doctors’ warnings, UW-Madison officials and police appear to have little concern over the abuse of Adderall on campus — findings that echo a 2008 report by The Capital Times. And officials at other Wisconsin campuses also see increasing use of the prescription stimulant.
While no firm data exist, a survey conducted at an unnamed Midwestern campus and published in 2005 found 44 percent of students knew someone who used illegally obtained stimulants such as Adderall — and experts suggest that trend continues. The study found four in 10 students with a stimulant prescription abused the drug at some point.
Adderall-related arrests on campus are rare but not unheard of, said UW-Madison Police Sgt. Aaron Chapin.
UW-Madison Police have no records of any case during the 2009-10 academic year involving prescription drugs. There were six cases involving prescription drugs during the 2008-09 school year, three involving Adderall.
“We don’t see a ton of Adderall abuse,” said Tonya Schmidt, a UW-Madison assistant dean of students. “ We know it’s happening, but we can’t prove it.”
The effects of Adderall are seen by students as more benign than alcohol or marijuana, said William Frankenberger, the UW-Eau Claire professor who led the 2005 study. Frankenberger, who studies ADHD, describes the prevailing attitude as, “They’re giving it to kids. It must be safe.”
Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, a psychiatrist at UW-Madison’s University Health Services, said some doctors also don’t recognize the dangers of Adderall abuse. “Emergency room admissions, overdoses, legal problems — everything has skyrocketed,” he said.
When used correctly, Adderall helps treat children and adults with ADHD, a serious disorder that causes problems with concentration or hyperactivity and interferes with learning and social functioning.
For Alyssa, the effect was immediate: While in high school, she bumped her grade point average from a 3.4 on a 4.0 scale to 4.3 with the help of Adderall and Advanced Placement classes.
“It just made it so much easier to focus,” she recalls. “I hate saying that it’s a miracle drug, but I definitely don’t think I would be where I am today without it.”
The law student said that as an undergraduate, she was repeatedly asked by friends to sell them her pills. She declined.
“Wisconsin was insane,” she said. “My roommates, my friends in college, all the time, none of them were prescribed, and they would take it to write a paper, they would take it to go out.”
A UW-Madison senior who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity acknowledged she has sold pills from her Adderall prescription. She didn’t want to be named because she sold the drugs illegally.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who doesn’t take it. It’s like taking Advil,” said the student, who recently graduated.
Dr. Alex Faris, staff psychologist and substance abuse specialist at the University Counseling and Consultation Services at UW-Madison, noticed a rise in the non-medical use of prescription drugs.
University officials and police at other campuses in Wisconsin have little data on Adderall abuse.
UW-Milwaukee Police had a handful of arrests for Adderall in the first half of 2010 that resulted in charges, Sgt. Art Koch said. At Marquette University, Dean of Students Stephanie Quade calls Adderall abuse a “silent problem” and acknowledges it likely is a growing problem on her campus.
“We certainly know it’s an issue on other campuses, so we cannot be naive to think that it wouldn’t be an issue here,” Quade said.
Heiligenstein said in addition to physical dangers, students can develop a psychological dependence on Adderall.
“They ... think that they can’t pass the tests unless they’re taking the drugs,” he said. “It becomes a very destructive cycle that requires them to abuse the medications to succeed.”
During a particularly stressful time in her life, Alyssa said, she began increasing her use of the drug until, while on a trip to Europe, she overdosed on Adderall and alcohol.
“I woke up in the hospital with no recollection of the night,” she said.
Alyssa now takes Vyvanse, which she said makes her less anxious. She attributes much of her negative experience with Adderall to the demands she felt at UW-Madison to balance academics and a frenetic social life.
“Wisconsin’s such a big party school,” she said. “The mentality is sort of ‘work hard, play hard.’ I think a lot of people go to the extreme.”
The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.