High Scores

Students are using drugs illegally not to party down, but to get better marks on exams

It started with her freshman-year midterms.

Laura, a student at one of Houston's toniest private high schools, suddenly realized that her grades, in a word, sucked. It was her fault; she knew that. Because her school allows students to use laptops to take notes, and because it can afford to provide wireless Internet access, she had spent most of her class time exploring the Internet and Instant Messaging her friends.

"I was doing lots and lots of that," she admits. "I didn't pay attention at all."

In only one evening, a teenage boy constructed an entire bridge made out of spaghetti for physics class while he was on Adderall.
David Hollenbach
In only one evening, a teenage boy constructed an entire bridge made out of spaghetti for physics class while he was on Adderall.
ADD expert Jay Tarnow says it's rare for kids with the disorder to abuse their medications.
Daniel Kramer
ADD expert Jay Tarnow says it's rare for kids with the disorder to abuse their medications.

Laura had heard about people taking prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall to help them focus. She was aware, of course, that the people she knew who took those pills had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and doctors had prescribed the pills. No one had ever labeled her ADD. But still, she figured, if it worked for them, it might work for her.

She scored some free Ritalin from a classmate, and when it came time to buckle down and start studying, she closed herself off in her room and swallowed 15 milligrams.

It wasn't like coffee, and it wasn't like No-Doz pills. It was so, so much better than that.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is great. I don't have to sleep,' " says the coltish, fair-skinned girl with a rapid-fire, sweet-as-sugar voice. "I studied for eight hours at a time. I studied and actually learned the stuff."

She swallowed a pill every three to four hours, and soon she became the master of the index card. She scribbled on card after card, filling each one with equations and vocabulary words and French grammar rules. Whereas before after just an hour or so of studying Laura would have found herself staring into space or goofing off in her bedroom, that didn't happen on Ritalin. After she got good grades on her midterms, she stopped taking the drug.

That's when she crashed.

"I could tell when I came off it, because I got tired and really distracted, more than usual," she says. "And I was like, 'This is bad, I need to take more.' " So when finals rolled around, Laura discovered a different ADD drug, Adderall -- one she says worked even better for her than the Ritalin did.

"That's how I studied for finals, and I did really, really well on my finals," she says.

Laura and the other students in this article didn't want their real names used. None of them is particularly unique among high school and college students these days. The twist is that instead of using drugs illegally for recreation, these kids are using drugs to score higher grades. They're not cheating. But without a prescription, what they're doing is illegal.

"Adderall was like the staple," explains 18-year-old Jack, reflecting on his recent public high school career in an outlying suburb of Houston. "Like, if you couldn't afford crystal meth you could get the Adderall from someone in your class. Just look for the kid that can't pay attention."

Jack, who used Adderall through high school but claims to be clean now, remembers one friend who had put off a physics project involving the construction of a bridge made out of dry spaghetti that had to be able to hold a certain amount of weight.

"He had postponed this three-week project, and the last night he decided he was going to work on it, it was like 12 o'clock, and he had like four things of spaghetti," says Jack. "So he took a whole bunch of Adderall, maybe like 95 milligrams or something, and he just worked through the night. I saw him in second period the next day and he was like, 'Hey, Jack, I just did a full night on Adderall building a spaghetti bridge!' "

The bridge ended up breaking under the weight, says Jack, but only because the glue was still wet. And anyway, the guy got a passing grade for trying.

Ever since ADD became an almost fashionable diagnosis in the mid-'90s, there have been reports from across the country of high school and college kids selling their pills or giving them away to kids who want to get high or just study harder. Although data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that abuse of the stimulants Ritalin and Adderall has leveled off in the last few years, it's still a source of concern. In May 2000, Terrance Woodworth of the Drug Enforcement Administration offered congressional testimony that noted the dramatic increase in prescriptions for the two drugs in the past ten years -- hence the wider availability of the pills. In the early '90s, Ritalin was one of the most stolen drugs in the country. There were even reports of "attention deficit scams," where a parent or other adult would get medication for their ADD child and then use it or sell it instead.

It's hard to say if arrests for illegal use of the drugs have gone up -- the Harris County District Attorney's office doesn't track them specifically. And police from the Houston, Fort Bend and Spring school districts say their biggest problem is still the old standby: marijuana. Then again, a pill that was legitimately prescribed to nearly six million American schoolchildren in 2001 might be a lot easier to conceal in a classroom than a joint -- although kids are sometimes found out.

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