High Scores

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

"When I was a sophomore or junior, a freshman was caught with a whole bunch of Adderall," remembers Jack. "A whole pill bottle. And this was a pretty good kid; he wasn't even ADD, he just brought them to school to sell after he bought them from some ADD kids. Two months after that there was some big school assembly talking about the dangers of Adderall, basically. It was the first time I'd ever heard an administrator talk about it being used illicitly instead of as a miracle drug that makes bad kids work better."

But the pills are not popular just in high schools. Although area university health departments have tight restrictions on prescribing the drugs -- in fact, most refer students with ADD symptoms to outside specialists -- that doesn't mean the kids can't get ahold of them. With more ADD students than ever staying on their medication while in college, the pills are widely available as a study aid to students who aren't supposed to be taking them. At exam time it's a seller's market, explains 20-year-old Mike, a Houston native who now studies at the University of Texas in Austin. Where a pill might go for $2 during the rest of the school year, it could go for as high as $6 during finals week.

"Everyone buys it," says Mike. "You'd be surprised how many straight-A students will come up to you and ask you for it.

Baylor's John Sargent won't write Ritalin or Adderall prescriptions for patients away at school because he wants to be able to monitor them closely.
Daniel Kramer
Baylor's John Sargent won't write Ritalin or Adderall prescriptions for patients away at school because he wants to be able to monitor them closely.

"If you take 15 milligrams, you really won't feel that much," he says. "If you're studying, 15 milligrams is really good. You're relaxed, you can pay attention to things for longer. You can work for six hours straight and you don't have to get up and do anything except get a drink of water."

Mike has used Adderall to prepare for tests in American government and history; he aced both exams. Although he normally hates reading, Mike discovered that on Adderall he actually enjoyed being productive.

"I hated government class," he says. "It wasn't any interesting policies or interesting topics. It was just, you know, what happened in Plessy v. Ferguson, all these different facts. [But] on Adderall I could sit there for hours and read and get everything done. I would go to places where normally I wouldn't go to study, and I could study there."

Both Jack and Mike have experimented heavily with other drugs besides Adderall, but they don't view the ADD drugs as a big problem, for either them or other kids. If you're doing it to study, reasons Mike, "you're probably fine."

It's that kind of thinking that worries John Will, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and program director for the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, a nonprofit support program for teenage drug addicts and their families that has operated in Houston since 1971.

"A lot of times what you will see with the young person is they make justifications for the drug that they do," says Will. "They think, 'Well, a doctor prescribed it to Joe Bob, who is my friend who looks like me and acts like me, and if it's good enough for Joe Bob, it's good enough for me.' "

Will says he can't give a profile of the average Adderall user, although he theorizes that there may be more of them in the suburbs than in the city.

"You get out into suburbia and they are a lot more body-conscious," he says, noting that he's known young women who have taken the drug to suppress appetite. "There's more pressure to be perfect, there's more pressure to be upbeat and active and all of that."

And of course, there's pressure to get good grades.

The desire for an A on an organic chemistry test was Julie's motivation for taking a friend's Adderall the night before the exam. A student at Texas A&M, Julie shuns coffee because it upsets her stomach and makes her sweaty and clammy. A straitlaced student who drinks alcohol but has never tried any other drugs, Julie found herself worrying about the upcoming big test. Although she was in a regular study group, she knew that as the hours wore on everyone wouldn't exactly want to study.

"They would all get really silly toward the end of it," she says. "Jumping around, making coffee, talking, not really studying or anything."

With pages and pages of information about molecules and synthesis and electrons that she knew needed to be conquered before the break of dawn, Julie accepted the offer of some free Adderall from her friend who had a prescription for it. By the time her study partners entered the giddy phase of studying, Julie was busy memorizing facts and equations without being distracted.

"When I took it, the thought of stopping, even when they were playing around and being silly…," she says. "I could study. I could sit there and read the book while they were jumping around."

Julie, who has since taken the drug once more to prepare for another exam, says she didn't worry about what she was taking or about the fact that it's illegal to use someone else's prescription drugs.

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