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College students turn to stimulants in push for higher grades

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As final exams approach and libraries get crowded, demand for Adderall soars, the stimulant's users say. (C. Onur Ant/CNS)

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Stefana, 20, says now she depends more on coffee and self-discipline than stimulants. (C. Onur Ant/CNS)

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Stefana, 20, says now she depends more on coffee and self-discipline than stimulants. (C. Onur Ant/CNS)

Stefana, a 20-year-old Columbia student troubled by her workload, took a 20-milligram pill at 10 o'clock one night and went to her dorm room to study for a final exam the next day. A first-time user of the drug, it took Stefana several minutes to realize something was different.

She said she "felt really energetic and focused," an unusual feeling for a university student studying for final exams. Stefana was so focused that when a friend visited her room to ask an exam-related question, she listened to the friend's life story until 5 in the morning. She read more than 300 pages of English literature in the last few hours before her exam, and received an "A" on the test.

The drug Stefana took that night almost three years ago was Adderall, a prescription stimulant used to treat people with attention deficit disorder. Stefana says she used the drug several more times without a prescription in her first two years at college but that now she relies on self-discipline and coffee.

Studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that prescription stimulants are abused on campuses because students believe they are safer than illegal drugs. The stimulants, which are used mostly to stay awake during exam periods, are more prevalent in universities with competitive admission standards.

The fact that "it is prescribed makes you feel you're kind of safe," said Stefana, who added that she considered Adderall safe and harmless when compared with illegal drugs. Stefana asked that her last name not be used, fearing that she could be recognized by her family.

Stimulant abuse goes up during the final exam periods when college students flood libraries to concentrate on their work. Drugs help them keep awake and reach a higher level of focus than they normally could.

"You know you do nothing for a month and make a sacrifice the last two days," Stefana said, describing how some students study.

She, like others, said it was easy to get the drug. Go to a psychiatrist and make up "a little story like you have to multitask all at the same time and you can't focus," and you will easily get a prescription, she said.

Cliff Ganus, a junior at Harding University, also uses Adderall for performance purposes. He said everyone "has a connection to a doctor," but he added that anyone can buy a pill for $5 from someone on campus who has a prescription.

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2004 said that 5.9 percent of students in "more competitive" universities had used amphetamines at least once during the previous year compared with 1.3 percent of the students in schools categorized as "less competitive."

Figures show the rates vary across regions as well. The number of college students using amphetamines at northeastern universities was 6.9 percent and in north-central universities, 2.8 percent, according to the study. Whites, male students and members of fraternities were more likely than others to abuse stimulants.

"It's the rich, competitive type who aims for a better life," Stefana said, describing the stereotypical amphetamine user. Stefana, who has a grade point average higher than 3.70, said she might as well be considered one of those "types."

Many students believe that Adderall is harmless and nonaddictive, even when used without a prescription.

"It's kind of a non-stinky way of getting the same effect of the street drugs," said Ganus, who used to take two to three pills a week when he was a freshman in the mass communications program at his university. Now, he said, he takes about one a month.

But experts say that using amphetamines without consulting a doctor can be risky.

Lynda Erinoff, formerly of the drug abuse institute's division of epidemiology services and prevention research, said in the 2004 study that "students abuse prescription drugs to help concentrate during exam time, and to try to relieve stress."

"But," Erinoff said, "a drug or dose that a doctor orders for one person is not necessarily appropriate for another, and prescription abusers are potentially taking a serious risk."

According to another study by the institute, long-term use might impair the brain and cause high body temperatures and serious heart problems.

"Typically, people who use this drug don't consider themselves drug abusers," Ganus said, noting that he might stop after school ends. "I don't consider myself a drug abuser. I'm very conscious of what I'm doing to my body."

E-mail: coa2103@columbia.edu