‘Steroids for school’: College students get hooked on ‘smart drugs’

At colleges across America, students are becoming addicted to a popular prescription drug — not because they’re trying to get high, but because they hope to get smarter. The drug, Adderall, is normally prescribed for kids with attention deficit disorder. But some college kids are taking the medication because it helps them focus and pull all-nighters.

One ‘A’ student at one of the nation’s top tier colleges explained the appeal of the pills kids call “study buddies.”

“When I’m on Adderall and I’m looking at the textbook I can forget about everything else around me,” she told NBC News’ Amy Robach, in a report aired on TODAY. “I figured if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I get the advantage?”

Another student, “Mike,” who asked that his real name be withheld, elaborated. “It’s given me the boost to work non-stop for 10 hours a day,” he explained. “Baseball players take steroids to be the best and students take Adderall to be the best. It’s steroids for school.”

Related: Statement from Shire regarding Adderall abuse

Parents accustomed to warning their kids about the dangers of alcohol and stimulants like cocaine may have been caught off guard by the growing prevalence of prescription medication use among college students trying score good grades. While Adderall is considered safe when taken as prescribed by a doctor, experts say it can be very addictive.

“It’s a highly addictive substance and when you play with addictive substances, you ultimately get burned,” Stephen Odom, a drug abuse counselor at Sober Living by the Sea, told Robach. “For all intents and purposes, Adderall is speed. You’re putting something in your body that’s gonna make you think you’re OK when you’re not. And the next thing you know, you’re gonna be spinning out of control.”

That’s what happened to a freshman honor student named Aly. Struggling to keep up with her schoolwork, she gratefully took the “smart pill” offered by a friend. Within weeks she became addicted, buying several pills a day.

“You become dependent on it, because you’ll use it one night to study for a test like I did and the next thing you know, you’re using it every night to study for a test,” she told Robach.

Soon Aly was suffering all sorts of unexpected effects: mood swings, insomnia, panic attacks, depression. Her grades spiraled down. It all took a toll on her.

“It snuck up on me,” she told Robach. “I went from being on an academic scholarship at a great university to being on academic probation within six months, to being asked to withdraw from that university after a year. All because of Adderall.”

Addiction isn’t the only possible fallout from “smart pills.” While they can help students focus for hours on end, they can get in the way of other cognitive skills.

“In some instances these types of drugs can hurt you,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “For example, when people want to do creative or imaginative things.”

The same drugs that can improve focus can inhibit flights of imagination, which may make it more difficult to write creatively, Volkow explained to Robach.

So, just how big of a problem is this?

As part of a hidden camera investigation, a TODAY intern visited the library at one of the nation’s top colleges, and it didn’t take long to score some pills.

Just 30 seconds after walking into the library, the intern hit pay dirt with one of the students.

“Do you know anyone here that I could get Adderall from?” the intern asked.

“Yeah, me,” the student replied.

“How much for a pill?” the intern asked.

“Like five bucks for a 25 milligram pill,” the student answered, taking the TODAY show intern back to one of the library carols where she pulled out some pills.

The intern said she didn’t have that much cash on hand and the student suggested an alternative method for scoring Adderall: feign symptoms and get a legitimate – and legal – prescription.

“I guarantee you have half the symptoms,” the student said. “Google ADD specialists. It’s in their interest to prescribe it to you because you have to go back to them once a month and check in and give them some money.”

That’s exactly what “Mike” did.

“I went to a doctor and told them I couldn’t focus,” he told Robach. “And by the end, I walked out with a prescription. It was incredibly easy.”

Robach wondered how his parents felt about his getting a prescription to boost his grades.

“It’s like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of thing,” he said. “They don’t wanna know. They’re paying for that report card.”

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