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The Illicit Use of Adderall Among University Students Essay

The Problem: A Historical & Social Perspective: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by impulsive, hyperactive, distractive tendencies, and difficulties focusing.1 While the nature of this condition may be “maladaptive” in the context of modern society, some authors have viewed ADHD as having beneficial qualities in our evolutionary past.2, 3 Etiologic research indicates that natural selection favoured ADHD traits because they were necessary for hunting, and therefore survival.2, 3 As civilization developed over multiple centuries however, these inherent traits became ‘medical symptoms’ of a neurological disorder, simply because these traits had no adaptive function in its emerging culture. In the 1980’s ADHD had become widely accepted as a medical disorder, and soon after was the development of prescribed treatments such as Adderall to diminish the symptoms.4 Approved by the FDA in 1996, Adderall quickly became one of the most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD, and still is today.

5 The use of Adderall however has become a growing concern specifically among university students, due to the substantial increase in illegal Adderall consumption across university campuses.6 Whether students are seeking an academic edge, suppressing their appetite to induce weight loss, or simply wanting to feel high, these ‘rewarding’ outcomes induced by Adderall have contributed to its popularity among university students.7 Research of the literature unearths an especially alarming theme, indicating that the use of Adderall by students has become a salient part of the university culture.4 Of the 34% of college students who admitted to the illicit use of ADHD medication, 63% reported that their first use was during college.4 The former percentage is likely an underestimation of the true prevalence, as subjects may not openly admit to illegal substance abuse.

This is reflected by the 44% of students in another study who reported that they knew students who used Adderall illicitly8, removing them from the spotlight. These increasingly high figures are likely the result of the overwhelming academic and social pressures placed on university students, and this growing trend reflects their intrinsic need to meet the increasingly high expectations created by today’s society. For example, with exceedingly high GPA cut-offs for graduate programs and fiercely competitive job opportunities9, university students feel an overwhelming pressure to excel academically and thus engage in illicit Adderall use. Furthermore, with the immense social pressures placed on young women to conform to an idealistic image of femininity, we see female students abusing Adderall solely to lose weight, 7 because contemporary media portrays beauty as being dangerously thin.10

The Impact: Health Risks, Social and Ethical Concerns: Adderall is a highly controlled substance, and despite the possibility of serving 2 years in jail or paying a $10,000 fine for possession without a prescription11, university students continue to consume the substance like it is candy. When asked how difficult it was to obtain Adderall illegally in college, 39% of subjects claimed that it was “very easy”, 43% conveyed that it was “somewhat easy”, and fewer than 1% reported that it was “very difficult”. 4 Furthermore, 96% of subjects rely on obtaining Adderall illicitly compared to the 4% of subjects who receive a prescription from their physician to treat their diagnosed ADHD.4 These statistics raise many health concerns, ethical issues and have a profound social impact on this population.

With the alarmingly high percentage of illicit Adderall users coupled with its easy access, students have begun to normalize its use, where 96% of these students are blindly consuming the drug without being educated or monitored by a physician, or first being tested for pre-existing medical problems that could cause detrimental health effects with prolonged use.4, 7 While the acute side effects are relatively minimal, including potential hypertension, increased heart rate and headaches, 12 the long-term risks are significantly more severe, which include anorexia, anxiety and depression.12 These menacing effects raise health concerns especially among the university population, because this age group is at the highest-risk for developing a mental illness.13 With continued illicit Adderall use in this population, its effects may further predispose students to depression and anxiety, which is already a growing health concern independent of Adderall.

In a recent study conducted across Ontario universities, approximately 53% of university students reported feelings of overwhelming anxiety and 36% of students “felt so depressed they said it was difficult to function.”13 In addition to these potential adverse health impacts, one of the largest social concerns especially problematic with Adderall use is that it acts as a ‘gateway drug’, meaning that students who take prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes are more likely to report usage of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy.4,7 This is concerning because many of these drugs have a wide range of negative health effects, including psychosomatic symptoms, emotional distress, interpersonal relationships and family issues.14 The ethical concerns regarding illicit Adderall use provides an alternative perspective on the issue, where the impact is focused on a) non-ADHD individuals who do not take Adderall and b) ADHD-diagnosed individuals who take Adderall to function “normally”.

Similar to performance enhancing drugs used in professional sports, the illegal use of Adderall among university students create an uneven playing field for both groups previously outlined. With Adderall being so prevalent and accessible, 4 non-ADHD students who do not take Adderall likely face an internal-moral conflict where they may compromise their standards to compete with these illicit Adderall users at a higher level. There has been minimal research conducted on this specific matter, however it is an important issue to address because it illustrates the ripple effect of this illegal substance use, affecting more than just the user, from a social and ethical standpoint.

In conclusion, while the historical context of ADHD is important for us to understand the development of Adderall as a medical treatment, its illicit use among university students is a result of society’s influence. The dangerous interplay between modern society’s influence and the needs of university students have created this black market for Adderall, and therefore raises many health concerns, ethical issues, and has many profound social impacts on students who use Adderall illicitly, as well as their non-engaging peers.


1. Asher, J. (2007). Gene Predicts Better Outcome as Cortex Normalizes in Teens with ADHD. National Institutes of Health.

2. Hallowell, E., & Ratey, J. (1994). Driven to Distraction. New York (NY): Touchstone.

3. Hartmann, T. (I993). Attention Deficit Disorder: A different perception. Lancaster (UK): Underwood-Miller.

4. DeSantis, Alan, Elizabeth Webb, and Seth Noar (2008). Illicit Use of Prescription ADHD Medications on a College Campus: A Multimethodological Approach. Journal of American College Health, 57(3): 315-324.

5. DuPaul, G.J., & White, G.P., (2006). ADHD: Behavioural, Educational, and Medication Interventions. Education Digest: 71(7), 57 – 60.

6. Reimold, D., (2011). College Adderall boom has unintended side effects. USA Today.

7. Teter, C.J., McCabe S.E., LaGrange, K., Cranford, J.A., Boyd, C.J., (2006). Illicit Use of Specific Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: Prevalence, Motives, and Routes of Administration. Pharmacotherapy, 26(10): 1501 – 1510.

8. Hall, K.M., Irwin, M.M., Bowman, K.A., Frankenberger, W., Jerwtt, D.C., (2005). Illicit Use of Prescribed Stimulant Medication Among College Students. Journal of American College Health, 53(4) 167 – 174.

9. Powell, K., (2012). The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality. Science: 08 – 24

Psychological Reports: 64: 887 – 890.

11. Clemmitt, M., (2012). Treating ADHD: Are attention disorders overdiagnosed?
The CQ Researcher, 22(28): 669 – 692.

12. Higgins, S. E., (2009). Do ADHD Drugs Take a Toll on the Brain? Scientific American Mind,
20: 28 – 43

13. Linthicum, M.D., (2009). American College Health Association (2009). Ontario Reference Group Executive Summary.

14. Newcomb, M.D., Bentler, P.M., (1988). Impact of adolescent drug use and social support on problems of young adults: A longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97(1): 64 – 75. .

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