The UVM Study Drug Craze Reaches its Zenith in the Coming Weeks

It’s crunch time in the dorms. These are the last two weeks of the semester and that means deadlines, presentations, exams, final papers, long nights at the library… and coffee, lots and lots of coffee. That is unless, like many students do, you have access to one of a handful of different prescription drugs, which are always in high demand this time of year.Historically, the use of performance enhancing drugs in the academic field is a common practice. Honore de Balzac was known to stay up writing for days while gorging on strong coffee, and eventually paid for his lifestyle with an early death. Sigmund Freud, Robert Lewis Stevenson and Max Weber all used cocaine. In a letter to his fianc??e Martha Bernays dated June 2, 1884 Freud wrote “Woe to you, my Princess, when I come…you shall see who is stronger, a gentle girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.” But who hasn’t said that before? Stevenson wrote his most famous work, Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, on a six day cocaine binge, which begs the question: could the personality changes represented in the novel have been inspired by the characteristic up’s and down’s of cocaine use? Weber also spent some of the most productive years of his life under the influence of cocaine, and the painter Salvador Dali once said “I do not take drugs. I am drugs.” One can only assume he was high. The prevalence of study drugs in academia, while still a widely unresearched phenomenon, is a simple fact of college life. “Whether you’re selling your prescription or in need of study aids,” says senior Kathering Sadis, “UVM traffics heavily in Adderall and Ritalin, especially during finals week.” With so many students living in close quarters, the dorms are swamped with prescriptions of every kind and students generally don’t need to look any further than their own dorm floor. The use and abuse of Adderall, Ritalin and prescriptions in general, elicits complicated questions about our culture, our academic system, and also the pharmaceutical industry itself. I spoke recently to sociologist Andrew Golub, who teaches a Drugs and Society course at UVM, in an attempt to get a better grasp on the subject. “Pharmacopoeia is growing and the country is developing a dependence on prescriptions. I like to distinguish between what I believe are the three main uses of prescription drugs. These are as follows: to correct a chemical imbalance, such as in the case of disabilities like ADD, cosmetic pharmacology used for example to appear socially acceptable, and performance enhancing pharmacology. These motives raise the question of whether Adderall and Ritalin are the steroids of the academic industry or perhaps just a stronger cup of coffee.” “All legal uses of drugs are growing. There’s been a massive broadening of the interpretation of symptoms as well as a big increase in off label prescribing. Drug companies, which have enormous advertising budgets, can now bring their product straight to the consumer through television. Often people learn how to describe symptoms to their doctors beforehand through commercials, and this certainly has lead to an increase in the frequency for prescribing these drugs.” Uncertainty surrounds the issue on all sides. No major studies have been conducted on prescription drug abuse in academia and the repercussions of excessive use are largely unknown. “There is no good data on the percent of students abusing prescription drugs,” says Golub. “Scholars are just now starting to examine their use and we’re really unaware of the cultural changes and long-term effects caused by these drugs – and we won’t know until generation Rx reaches adulthood.” The University has little to do with student prescriptions. Programs created to aid students with disabilities, such as ACCESS (Accommodation, Consultation, Collaboration & Educational Support Services), have little information about the use of pharmaceutical aids other than that which has been volunteered by students. “We have nothing to do with medication at all,” say’s Donna Panko, a student advisor at the ACCESS office. “Our job is to receive and review documentation on students with functional limitations, and these could be one of many not limited to specific learning disabilities. In many cases we don’t know what medications students are on – if any. We do advise that students be consistent if taking medication because radical changes in body chemistry can intensify problems. I can tell you that there are about 650 students here at the University with disabilities and about 10% of the national student population are afflicted.” Even the most brilliant students are, at this point in their academic careers, familiar with the disappointment of spending stress-filled hours on a subject only to receive a grade that doesn’t reflect their time and effort. In many cases and for many students, the format of a class can do more to hurt a student’s actual knowledge of the content. This raises an important question about the effectiveness of our grading system and in turn the way that we assess and diagnose learning disabilities. Many times, I have found myself asking where the line between normal and unnatural lies. Is it really natural for a child to sit still for long periods of time while listening attentively to subject material that does not interest him? With what authority do we define the inability to sit still as a shortcoming to be dealt with through the chemical alteration of our very personalities? It’s time to consider that our society and what it requires of us may be unnatural and that while we’re busy trying to fix ourselves, we may be overlooking important cultural problems for which no prescription exists. As a final note, I’d like to point out that our minds are adaptive machines. The neuron is one of the only cells in the human body that changes until the day we die. Life is something of a struggle and little comes easily – how much do we undermine our own biology when we choose medication over the faculties we’re equipped with at birth?