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The Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. - As final exams wrap up on college campuses across the country, the pills used to keep hyperactive or distracted children on task are being used by college students to boost their performance on tests.
Surveys and interviews of students point to increasing use of amphetamines and other prescription stimulants to help them keep awake and focused on their goal of higher grades. For usually no more than $5 a pill, students whose only problem is fatigue can aspire to academia's version of a steroid-taking home-run hitter.
"Every ... college student knows someone who is prescribed it," said one 19-year-old University of Florida student. "It's not hard to get."
A study to be published in January in the Journal of American College Health reports that 17 percent of men and 11 percent of women at one Midwestern university said they have illegally used drugs intended for children and adults with attention-deficit disorders.
Forty-four percent of the 381 students surveyed at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire said they knew someone who used these drugs illegally.
"The students felt they were pressured for time, with family, school and personal demands," said William Frankenberger, a psychology professor at the Eau Claire campus and an author of the study. "They were using it to deal with that pressure."
Florida students know that pressure, too.
"I use Diet Coke" to study, said Chris Robinson, a 20-year-old student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "But people here all have friends with ADD (attention-deficit disorder)." He said it's "a common thing" to acquire and use the pills.
Illicit use of prescription stimulants alarms drug experts because they can speed up heart rates and cause other side effects when combined with alcohol, other drugs or existing health problems.
Researchers say they are only beginning to understand the popularity and ill health effects it may have on campus.
The growth in this class of drugs - methylphenidates, including Concerta, Ritalin and Metadate, and amphetamines such as Dexedrine and Adderall - has exploded in the past decade. According to a 2002 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency report, production of amphetamines alone skyrocketed by 5,767 percent from 1993 to 2001.
Frankenberger said the drugs' effects closely resemble cocaine and other street drugs such as methamphetamine or ephedrine, and may indeed briefly improve studying abilities. But they likely harm grade performance if used more than a few days, he said.
The survey in Wisconsin and other limited research, Frankenberger said, suggests that these study aids are being used even more outside the Midwest, particularly at high-pressure elite schools.
"Word is really getting around," he said.
The University of Florida sophomore said he gets his drugs from friends on campus.
"I obviously don't need it," he said. "But there's just times when you have assignments due the next day, and it really helps you stay focused."
Some students even pop the pills or crush and snort them after finals - to party all night, many students told the Orlando Sentinel.
From 3 percent to 7 percent of school-age children and roughly 4 percent of adults suffer from attention disorders, national experts estimate. Although the causes of the disorder remain unclear, researchers discovered decades ago that stimulants could be used to help nerve cells in the brain communicate better.
Today, many of those drugs are being carried onto university campuses in the book bags of students who helped pioneer use of these medicines as children.
How much such drugs are being abused and how much damage they are causing is less clear, but both appear to be on the rise, experts and researchers said.
James McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, said he has noticed an "upswing" in reports of illicit use of these drugs but has no hard numbers to prove it. Students who use it to "party hard" or "cram for days" are "playing with fire," he said - risking heart or brain damage.
"It's not harmless," McDonough said. "It has the same impact as a dose of crack cocaine."
In interviews on three Florida campuses - the University of Florida, Rollins and the University of Central Florida - students most often cited Adderall as the study drug of choice.
A spokesman for the maker of Adderall, Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, said it is aware of reports about abuse on campus but said the company doesn't have any hard information on how prevalent the misuse of such medicine is.
Spokesman Matt Cabrey said the United Kingdom-based company focuses its U.S. advertising on parent-centered magazines, such as Family Circle or Woman's Day, and has stepped up its education campaigns about the drug's possible abuse or misuse.
Adderall XR, the extended-release form of the drug, is the most-prescribed attention-deficit drug in the United States. Company officials think it is less prone to abuse because its once-daily dose does not require students to carry around extra pills that might end up being shared with others, Cabrey said. XR also gives a measured dose of medicine throughout the day, rather than all at once.
"It's clear to us this is an issue we need to be aware of and monitor," Cabrey said. "Most folks understand you shouldn't share prescription medicine."
One 23-year-old University of Central Florida student said she hears people talk about using Adderall often, but she's not interested. She said she understands its appeal as a study drug, but that she had a bad experience the one time she took it.
"I'll never use it again," she said. "It was like taking a billion shots of espresso all night."
Duke University researcher David Rabiner is seeking a grant to study this phenomenon on campuses, noting that little is known on the frequency or consequences of the illicit student use of these prescription stimulants.
Although there is plenty of anecdotal information, it's just not clear how much the drugs are being abused, he said.
"There's a big difference between someone who uses it infrequently ... around exam time," Rabiner said, "and someone who is using it on a regular basis, to get high, and crushing it and snorting it.
"In terms of how much a problem it is, I don't think we know."
(Sentinel correspondent Ashley Knaus contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.