Maria Carrasco, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2022
Adderall, a stimulant medication often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has been misused as a “study drug” on college campuses for years. Students with a legitimate prescription have been known to sell their pills for as little as $5 apiece to classmates looking to sharpen their focus or stay up late to finish schoolwork. During the pandemic, however, Adderall misuse among college students declined, though some experts remain concerned—especially because alcohol and cannabis use are on the rise.
According to the latest Monitoring the Future study, the University of Michigan’s annual report tracking substance use among adults, nonmedical use of amphetamines—which includes ADHD medications such as Adderall—reached a 10-year low among college students in 2020. The study, which has been tracking substance use among college students since 1980, found that the share of 19- to 22-year-olds reporting nonmedical use of a stimulant medication declined to 6.5 percent in 2020, down 3.2 percentage points since 2015. Additionally, while college students over the past decade have been more likely to misuse amphetamines than their non-college-going peers, the gap closed in 2020, with 6 percent of the noncollege cohort reporting past-year use, the study found.
Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, said the decline likely stemmed from the fact that many college students returned home during the pandemic and attended classes remotely or not at all. Some were less likely to misuse Adderall at home because they didn’t want their parents to know, she said, or because they had a harder time obtaining the drug off campus. Zuckerman also noted that because students partied less during the pandemic, they may have felt less need to use Adderall to power through assignments or stay up late studying.
“If students were at home, and they weren’t partying late at night and exhausted the next day—because there was a pandemic, and they were living at home—they’d be getting more sleep, potentially, and there’d be less need for that last-minute studying,” Zuckerman said. “That’s so common when you’re on campus.”
Sean Esteban McCabe, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan, said that despite the decline in 2020, Adderall remains the most misused prescription medication among U.S. college students.
The Monitoring the Future study found that in contrast to the drop in Adderall use, marijuana consumption reached a historic high among 19- to 22-year-old full-time college students in 2020. Those who reported using marijuana daily—defined as on 20 or more occasions in the past 30 days—increased 3.3 percentage since 2015, to 7.9 percent.
That could bode ill for stimulant misuse; according to a study by the University of Georgia, students who reported frequent marijuana use or binge drinking were eight times more likely to have misused prescription stimulants such as Adderall. Study author Ash Warnock, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health, said his findings challenged the stereotype that Adderall misuse is reserved for ambitious high achievers.
Zuckerman said the pandemic has made it harder for some institutions to address drug misuse.
“These kinds of efforts to reduce drug abuse have a tendency to get a little weaker when there’s a lot else going on that’s keeping administrators and health professionals very busy and often very stressed out,” Zuckerman said.
She said institutions should always be on the lookout for the next hot drug to capture student interest. “In terms of what students will do, there’s always a new thing, and there’s always the rumors that ‘This is the new drug’ and ‘This is the better drug,’” Zuckerman said. “There’s often no data at all at the beginning, and then eventually, there’s some data, but you have to actually read it to find out about it. It’s like any other sales pitch—students are being told something, often by people who have a financial interest in selling it to them.”
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