Students cram for exams with 'study drugs'

The abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall, Ritalin and Dexedrine is common on university campuses.

Last year, 1,689 Nova Scotians between the ages of 18 and 25 were prescribed "study drugs," according to the Nova Scotia Prescription Monitoring Board. (Photo: David Kumagai)

Liam has a microeconomics exam tomorrow and he hasn't even cracked the textbook.

He gets up early, fills his water bottle, grabs a piece of fruit and sits down with his text. Then, he swallows a 30-milligram pill of Adderall and begins flying through the course.

He feels jittery, but his mind is sharper than normal. His nerves are teetering on the brink, but the pill grants a confidence that keeps him from losing control.

It's like the perfect caffeine buzz.

After 10 hours -- breaking only to fill his water bottle, take a pee and eat more fruit at the end of each chapter -- he's finished the text and ready to ace his exam.



Liam, a 21-year-old political science student at Dalhousie University, is not alone in taking un-prescribed stimulants to pass his classes.

Liam and the other students in this piece told their stories to Unews on the condition of anonymity, because they were afraid of any repercussions that could arise from admitting to misusing or dealing prescription drugs. Their names are pseudonyms and their stories can't be confirmed.

They are among a large group of students that use prescription drugs at exam time. Drugs like Ritalin, Dexedrine and Adderall, prescribed to people with Attention Deficit Disorder, are in high demand during midterms and exams, as students scrambling to catch up in their classes seek help.

The so-called "study drugs" enhance the activity of chemicals called dopamine and noradrenaline in parts of the brain responsible for attention and behaviour.

In Nova Scotia, more than 10,000 people received drugs for attention disorders from pharmacies last year, including 1,689 people between the ages of 18 and 25, according to the Nova Scotia Prescription Monitoring Board.

But many students who don't have prescriptions get the drugs from friends.

Widespread use

It's tough to gauge how many students on campus are taking study drugs, but Kyle, a 21-year-old business student says most of his friends take them before exams.

"If you go around campus around exam time it's a pretty big thing," he says. And its not limited to Nova Scotia schools.

Radio-Canada reported last November that medical students at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec were taking un-prescribed Ritalin to help them study. In Ontario, 16,500 high school students admitted to using an ADD drug for non-medical purposes, according to a 2009 survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Kyle says he began taking the drug in second year and guesses he's used it between 10 to 15 times.

"I can sit for seven or eight hours straight and do work," says Kyle. "My focus is way higher."

He gets the drug for free from a friend with an Adderall prescription, but other students say one pill usually costs $10.

Time management issue

Derrick Enslow, Dalhousie's peer health adviser, says he knows of several students without prescriptions who take the drugs because of poor time management. His job is to refer students to counseling and health services in the city.

At exam time, Enslow runs awareness campaigns to help deter students from resorting to study drugs. "Lack of time management tends to be the culprit," he says.

Jane Collins, the nurse manager at Saint Mary's University health clinic, says they see about one student each month asking to be tested for ADD, but the number spikes at exam time.

She says stimulant dealing on campus is an underground issue not discussed by their team of doctors and nurses.

"I'm sure it's being done, there's no question there at all," she says, "I've heard through the grapevine there are students sharing it with friends."

Collins warns against anyone without a prescription taking the drug. "People who come to university and think it's OK to share, it's not a good thing, the effects on the body are totally different for someone who doesn't have ADD."

Side effects

While students report that the study drugs help them cram for exams or write last-minute papers, medical professionals warn of dangerous side effects.

Carlo Carandang, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie and a staff psychiatrist at the IWK Health Centre, says using the drugs to study puts students on a slippery slope.

"They're highly addictive," says Carandang. Side effects include depression, anxiety and in rare cases psychosis, he explained, "abuse leads to problems."

Carandang says the drugs also reduce appetites and mess with sleeping patterns, creating a "vicious cycle of not sleeping and not eating."

He says there are much healthier ways to improve attention and focus, such as exercise, having daily routines, eating properly and sleeping well.

But many students are just looking for an easy fix for their poor study habits.

Getting a prescription

Ethan, a 23-year-old hospitality student at the Nova Scotia Community College, says he went to his family doctor looking for a Ritalin prescription.

"I was just lazy and I thought this was the easy way out," he says.

So he told his family doctor he thought he might have ADD and that his mom, a nurse, agreed. He says he walked out of his doctor's office with a prescription 20 minutes later.

"I heard from friends that this was a miracle drug," he says, "and the media makes it seem like everyone who has problems studying or paying attention should get Ritalin to help them focus."

He says the doctor wrote him a 30-day prescription, gave him the rundown on potential side effects and sent him off.

But the drug didn't take.

"It gave me a crazy case of the jitters," he says, "it lasted for several hours and I never took it again. It was like I had five Red Bulls."

As for the rest of his prescription, he gave the pills to his friend. "When I told my friends I had it, everyone wanted to have it."

Diagnosing ADD

Testing for ADD is a challenge and rarely conclusive.

Carandang says there are "no objective biological markers," to diagnose the disorder.

But he thinks fewer students should be prescribed the drugs. "ADD is over-diagnosed," he says, "and if someone really wants to be sure, they should go see a psychiatrist."

Collins says the SMU health clinic refers students to a psychiatrist in Bedford to perform a test, which Carandang says should involve a close examination of a student's behavioural history.

He will look at report cards as early as Grade 1 to scan teacher comments for signs of fidgeting or an inability to sit still.

Carandang says the disorder will usually show up before the age of six, "people can be diagnosed in adulthood, but those are rare cases."

He says that if someone really does suffer from ADD, they would have to be a "genius" to have made it to university without being diagnosed and treated.


The abuse of prescription drugs is a very unfortunate reality on university campuses, says the dean of residence at the University of King's College, Nick Hatt.

He says that while students who give their prescription drugs to friends may think they're helping, "in the end they may only be exacerbating the problem."

He says residence guidelines state that students can be suspended or even evicted for misusing prescription drugs.

It's also illegal to either deal prescription drugs or possess un-prescribed drugs.

Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of 1996, possessing un-prescribed study drugs is punishable by up to three years in prison, whereas dealing the drugs has a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

While neither SMU nor Dalhousie mentions study drugs explicitly in their academic integrity policies, they do say that any illegal use of drugs on campus will be disciplined.

Yet the fear of discipline is less concerning to Liam than the health risks.

"You have to be smart about it," he says, "respect its power."

Carandang says people build a tolerance to the drugs and thus need more every time to get the same effect, and it's something Liam has noticed.

While he's worried about becoming dependent on study drugs, he's not planning on giving them up completely.

He says he doesn't like to take it often because "you're not going to do your best work on it."

For now, the study drug remains Liam's last resort.

Comments on this story are now closed

I would like see the direct quote of the source sayning this: "He says that if someone really does suffer from ADD, they would have to be a genius to have made it to university without being diagnosed and treated." That's quite the claim without having it said directly. Also, your source seems a little once-sided. ADD/ADHD is more than fidgeting and restlessness. I think some research into the actual condition as well into the difference between the two would have benefited this story.

Posted by Rachel | Feb 11, 2022