Adderall: The Secret to Success, But At What Cost?

(student names have been changed for anonymity)

When we talk about drug use in high school, we traditionally think of alcohol and other substances used to kick back, relax, and socialize. What regularly sits overlooked are the drugs that aren’t meant for tuning out, but for tuning in. These ever-present drugs in schools are overlooked because of the levels of discretion around their selling and use which allows them to travel completely under the nose of the administration.

In the midst of finals last year, Quinn and a friend were approached by a student in their math class and offered Adderall as a kind gesture to help get them through the tough week. “[They] just actually like straight-up took it out of [their] backpack and gave it to us without us even asking.” This small favor would significantly change the way Quinn thought about academic life leading into the future of their high school career.

Adderall is a stimulant that is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. It works by speeding up brain activity through the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the central nervous system and is classified as a schedule two substance, placed in the same category as cocaine and morphine. For people who have it prescribed, it helps them to stay more centered, focused, and attentive. According to Dr. Alysa Zalma, MD, a practicing psychiatrist, “The effects are profound for people who have that disorder. I’ve noticed a lot of lives really turned around from the use of Adderall. They do a lot better in school, they may start to have more friends, and they generally feel better about themselves.”

For people who do not have ADHD, however, Dr. Zalma warns that a lot of the opposite effects will occur. “You’re going to feel anxious, you’re going to feel jittery, you might be able to hyper-focus for short periods of time,” she said, “but you’re going to crash and then you’re going to want more of it to kind of repeat the cycle which may end in drug abuse.”

With the pressures to get ahead in competitive climates like high school and college, more and more students have begun to try to get an edge to rise up and stand out among the masses of other students in order to present a strong academic image.

Quinn found the effects of the “study drug” to be surprisingly beneficial for their time management and concentration skills. “For the first time taking it I was able to do my work, not stop and be like “Uh what was I just doing?” Just an hour after popping a pill, Quinn found themselves tuned-in and motivated in a way that they had never experienced before.

After their first positive experience on Adderall, Quinn found themselves coming back for more each time there was a stressful academic event. Quinn said, “I’ve taken it like five times total but like spanned over time.” These nerve-wracking academic events like finals and big tests were subdued with the help of the seemingly harmless drug.

Adderall had the full effect Quinn had hoped it would. They were able to remain hyper-focused and attentive for up to 10 hours simply from one pill. While Quinn was very content with the effects of the drug, it also had some side effects they wished weren’t present. The “study drug” can sometimes suppress hunger due to the fact that Adderall increases dopamine levels, responsible for telling the body when it’s full. This increase in dopamine can send fake signals to the body telling it that it’s full when in reality the body is not. Quinn found themselves with a serious lack of appetite on the days they would take the drug. “It’s like one of those things where you can’t really feel if you’re hungry or not.” Now Quinn knows to pop the pill on a full stomach, because otherwise they won’t eat all day.

While the lack of hunger is an inconvenience, this side effect can be a sign that the dosage of the drug is far too high. In the doses given to people who are medically prescribed Adderall, it typically doesn’t cause a significant appetite suppression. “You have to get into really high doses that are potentially dangerous in order to experience more of a significant appetite suppressant side effect from the medication,” Dr. Zalma said. This is one of the reasons, she said, why anyone on Adderall, or any stimulant, needs to be under a physician’s care.

Aside from their lack of appetite while on the drug, Quinn found there to be many more serious side effects as well. Their mood and energy levels were altered significantly both on and while coming off of Adderall. The “study drug” works by increasing the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which increase energy, stimulate the brain, and create feelings of pleasure. Getting these extra surges while on the drug may be invigorating, but they come with serious repercussions on the way down. “It’s really bad on depression, so it adds to that.” Quinn said. “[Also] you can’t really sleep on it.” The imbalance in these neurotransmitters has proven to be a substantial challenge for Quinn.

During a standardized test this year, Quinn found themselves able to successfully tune in and focus on the material, despite all of the distractions taking place around them. They were able to finish every section with a heightened awareness of time management. Once the “study drug” wore off, however, the comedown was less than optimal. “It was like really beneficial while I was taking it, but when I was like not, then I was just not. It was just not okay.” While on the drug and when it’s on its way out of the system, Quinn said, “It changes your mood so you’re not yourself.” Quinn carried on throughout the day after the test with headaches and felt lost in a moody slump. When trying to go to bed that night, they found that they were unable to fall asleep at their normal time, still buzzing more than eight hours later. “I was seriously like really sad and not in a good place.” Despite its downsides, Quinn still feels that it is worth it to take Adderall when the needed situation arises.

Since experiencing the effects of Adderall, Quinn has gone for an ADHD diagnosis from their doctor to get the drug prescribed for themself. Unfortunately, they are currently unable to get it prescribed, because the other medications they are taking could be potentially dangerous if mixed with the drug, but Quinn still hopes to get things sorted out for a future prescription.

The more “designer drug appeal” may lead students like Quinn to attempt to obtain Adderall for a potentially unlikely ADHD diagnosis Dr. Zalma said. She feels that the higher motivation to get the drug prescribed can put these students at risk for a physical and psychological dependence. This is mainly because experiencing these “dysphoric effects of the drug” such as insomnia and depression when the stimulant wears off is a very rare occurrence for people that have been properly prescribed the medication.

High school can sometimes feel like an ocean of waves crashing down each time students feel like they’ve finally got their feet back on the ground. For Kendall, this feeling of never being on top of it all had them worried that their grades were headed for a nosedive this school year. Some of their friends were experiencing the same academic fears and were reaping the benefits of Adderall to keep their grades up.

Curiosity got the best of Kendall and figuring they’d just give it a try, they turned to a local dealer within Wilson they had heard about through friends to buy some pills.

This purchase would be the first of many. After taking the pill following third period, Kendall remembers, “It kept me up until three, and my mind was just buzzing. I felt like I could feel it like vibrating.” They remember being hyper-focused yet still easily distractible. After getting sidetracked cleaning their room for a couple of hours, Kendall was able to get back on track to be much more productive with their homework than ever before.

Kendall now takes the ‘study drug’ a few times a month when they feel that they need a fast way to get caught up on all of the work they’ve been procrastinating on. They are aware that the fault is on them, not the teachers assigning work, for getting so behind, but they cannot seem to maintain the same levels of focus and motivation as they had in previous years. The truth is, they say, “This is how I cope with it, because I can’t bring myself to do it the right way.”

They feel that Adderall has given them their edge back. “It just makes me feel more energetic [and] it gives me a lot of confidence in the fact that I am able to do all this work and finish it.” While they say that they don’t have a dependence on it, Kendall now intentionally puts off work because they know that they won’t be able to do it as effectively as while not on the drug. “I just kind of psych myself out about that and make excuses when I’m not on it.” They then front-load all of their backloads homework in one hyper-focused afternoon on the pill.

Students like Kendall only choose to take Adderall to help improve their grades. “I don’t take it actually for any of the big tests. I don’t take it for the SAT or finals or anything like that just because I feel like it’s kind of like I’m unsure about the ethics of that, you know, because it definitely does change the way you’re thinking, and I want those tests to be all me I guess.” While college is firmly set in their horizon, Kendall feels that they want to get there the right way, and Adderall is simply a helpful tool to make life a little easier when they need that extra push.

While they used to buy from a local Wilson dealer, Kendall now gets their monthly fix from a friend who has the drug prescribed as ADHD medication. Kendall doesn’t know how many milligrams the dose is, but the effects have elicited some scares before. Once when one pill didn’t seem to be enough, Kendall popped another one a few hours later to keep the stream of steady focus going. That night when trying to sleep, they found that the drug was far from wearing off. “I was just so awake, and I was awake late at night. I was awake the whole rest of the next day just from those effects.”

That morning something odd was occurring within them. “I could feel my heart beating like the whole rest of the next day. I just felt like I could feel my heart beating really fast the whole time.” This incident was enough to convince Kendall to strictly stick to one dose at a time to avoid another scare like that from happening again.

The reason for the heightened heart rate is because Adderall is a vasoconstrictor. This means a stimulant such as Adderall narrows the blood vessels while the user is on the drug so there is more of a risk of high blood pressure because of possible interferences with blood circulation. Reaching levels of feeling rapid heart beats for a prolonged amount of time is pushing into the danger levels of potential seizures or strokes. Even people prescribed appropriate doses of Adderall, “have to have what’s called informed consent,” Dr. Zalma said. This means that everyone prescribed the stimulant must understand and accept the potential cardiac problems that may accompany the prolonged usage. After consent is given, and prior to the official prescription of the drug, all patients are tested for a baseline blood pressure reading in order to be able to monitor the effects of the stimulant to make sure their blood pressure is not affected in an unhealthy or dangerous way.

Although the effects of an excess of the drug can be sometimes frightening to Kendall, they are planning on continuing to take Adderall in order to keep their grades on track for college. “I think it’s a great tool for helping people, but I definitely don’t think it’s a necessity.” Kendall said. They feel that the danger is fairly low as long as they stay smart about taking the “study drug.”

When there’s a market, there’s a source. The dealing scene for Adderall is discreet but ever present within Wilson’s halls. Since the product itself is tiny, and it’s near impossible to catch un-prescribed teens under the influence of the drug, the presence of the “study drug” goes highly unnoticed by anyone who is not directly in the know.

Before Frankie leaves their house in the morning, they pick up their pill bottle and decide whether to take their Adderall prescription or stick it in their back pocket to sell for some spending money after school. For Frankie, it all began as a cheap favor for friends. A pill for a couple of bucks. A pill to boost concentration and productivity like “magic”. But soon, word of their product began to spread, and before long this small exchange among friends had grown into a side business.

Somewhat surprised by the eager reactions of their peers, Frankie found themself bringing in a respectable profit. “If there wasn’t really such a big base for it, then I probably wouldn’t, but it’s just like a good market,” they said. The deals are discreet and the risk is low. “You just gotta use common sense I guess.”

After school they head to an agreed upon meeting spot within the school to meet up with clients and make the exchange of goods. “I just kinda, you know, shake em up a little bit, and then [they] give me money and I give them pills.” The trade is a quick one-and-done. That is, until the client contacts Frankie again wanting more.

Although they don’t advertise their service, Frankie has not had a problem selling the pills when they need some extra cash. They’re busiest around big test dates or finals. During the height of finals, more and more people caught word of Frankie’s dealing and they became inundated with requests for the “magic study pill”. “At like the peak it was pretty big. Like at one point I was making like $100 a day for like a week.” While the timing of income is unreliable, Frankie has no problem with selling only when the clients come to them.

The reliability of Frankie’s customers varies. “I’ve had a lot of people just do one-offs and then that’s it, but I’ve also had people come back like multiple times.” In the midst of finals, Frankie had customers coming back every day craving more of the “study drug.” “It’d be like after school and then like the next morning they’d be like “Yo, I need one more. Like that shit works,”” Frankie recalls.

A simple trade carries a lot of weight. Although distributing Adderall on school grounds is an offense that can result in a pending expulsion, for Frankie, the risk of getting caught by a doctor or their parents seems much more likely than getting caught by the school. “It gets kinda suss because people regulate it a lot, like the doctors and stuff, so it’s kinda hard to keep it low-key when you go big.” The tight regulation of the drug is a big reason that Frankie has cut down on taking their own prescription in order to sell because the missing pills could bring up some serious questions with the doctor.

The federal government regulates stimulants like Adderall very tightly. According to Dr. Zalma, physicians must document all prescriptions through the national registry to keep careful track on regulations. “They have to use what’s called a DEA number (drug enforcement agency number) to be allowed to actually prescribe the medication, and copies are kept on how often it is prescribed,” She said. Since all dosages are kept on tight file, it is very difficult to obtain more of the pills than medically prescribed.

Frankie is probably correct in their assumption that they are more likely to be suspected of dealing by their doctor than by the school. Since it’s discrete to sell and use, the administration at Wilson appears to be unaware of all Adderall use by students. With no evidence on the subject, “I’m not aware of anything like [Adderall dealing or abuse],” Vice principal Covey said. Since an issue such as Frankie’s dealing has never come up in his line of work, Covey is unsure of the policy surrounding the selling or abuse of Adderall. This, he says, is because finding pills is not as crystal clear of a breach in policy as finding paraphernalia such as a nicotine vape or marijuana on school property. The reason the policy is not as straightforward as other drugs is because, according to Covey, “There’s a lot of things that are even over the counter that can be prescribed that can alter your mood if you take enough of them, so at what point does that become like a violation of the policy? That’s kind of the tricky thing like if you have ibuprofen. You’re not supposed to do that.”

While taking too much of an over-the-counter drug and abusing a schedule two drug do not fall in the same category of danger to the student, to Covey the distinguishing line of punishment becomes fuzzy. He would have to consult with the district office to get a more clear idea of a suitable punishment if he were ever to come across a situation of Adderall dealing or abuse.

The district and administration are a lot more concerned with the issue of student use of other drugs because, while prescription pill abuse is inconspicuous, administration knows exactly what to look for concerning students under the influence of drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana. Mary Krogh, the district coordinator of drugs and alcohol, said, “I think abuse of prescription medication is an issue in PPS, but by far our biggest issue is marijuana and all of its forms. I would say probably about 90% of our discipline related issues, which are with drugs and alcohol, are with marijuana or a cannabis-related substance.” Trailing behind nicotine and alcohol, this leaves prescription pills like Adderall essentially off the radar within the district.

A main reason students get caught for doing drugs on school property is because administration is instructed to keep a careful eye out for teens who seem to be under the influence. “I don’t know the specifics about [the influence of] Adderall if you don’t have a prescription for it,” Krogh said. “I would say unimpaired demeanor is what staff are looking for in general. Do they have glassy eyes? Do they seem unresponsive? Are they slurring their words? Are they having a hard time answering questions?” Since none of these commonly recognized drug-related symptoms are consistent with Adderall abuse, it is near-impossible to catch a student in the act.

Although it can be argued that Adderall is much more dangerous and just as prevalent as many of the other drugs students are abusing on school property, its presence is almost completely unperceived throughout the district of PPS. Aside from the fact that administration simply isn’t looking for it, Adderall has no dead-giveaways in its effects or its odor making it extremely inconspicuous. With dealers and friends who have it already prescribed, the source is readily available for students and the product easy to take in undetected public spots anywhere on school grounds.

The pressures surrounding academics is mainly what has pressed these stressed-out students to push themselves beyond their limits. For many, the promised effects of one “magic pill” to temporarily transform them into the student they wish they could always be seems like a no-brainer.

While being smart about not getting caught is at the top of many students’ minds, the bigger issue is seemingly more about being aware; being aware of exactly what the risk that they take is each time they pop another “magic study pill”, because while Adderall has the power to do a lot of good for the students who need it prescribed for ADHD, it also has the potential to wreak a lot of harm on kids who medically don’t. These adverse and potentially dangerous side effects seem worth the risk to some students mainly because many of them are keenly unaware of the downsides.

“As I’m out in the high school’s talking with students, one thing that is really consistent for me and really concerning is the lack of awareness of accurate information that students have,” Krogh said. After learning all of the facts, these students can then have all of the information they need in order to make an informed decision and ask themselves: Is the risk worth the reward?

If you or someone you know is struggling with the abuse of Adderall or other substances, speak to your counselor, one of the professionals in room 146, or contact the Alcohol and Drug Helpline at 1-800-923-HELP.

Words and photos by Shandra Back