Artificial Intelligence

A look at Penn's "smartest" drugs


Steve* walks into Starbucks one afternoon, probably fitting this interview into a busy day full of meetings and class. Steve is someone that you hear before you see, and he is someone you hear often. One of Penn’s most active personalities, this Wharton student has reason to be stressed given the upcoming finals season.

Surrounded by students at the coffee shop, a go–to place on campus for a population of caffeine addicts, it would be clear to anyone listening in why Steve and I are talking about ways to prepare for the upcoming wave of papers and exams.  But, even though there are coffees in front of us, we are not talking about caffeine — we are talking about Adderall.

“I can bang out a paper very quickly. It can be very shitty, very linear, no creativity, but it will get written,” Steve says. “It makes your math homework seem super fun; the satisfaction is inexplicable when you are done. It feels like you have just conquered the world.”

Labeled by students as a “smart drug” and “the perfect life in a pill,” Adderall is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, both of which are central nervous system stimulants. The prescription drug is generally given to patients to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy. But a large number of students on Penn’s campus who use the drug aren’t prescribed it by a doctor, and are using it in plain sight.


Adderall and Ritalin (another commonly–abused ADHD medication) are in high demand during finals season, selling at $15 per 20 mg, the size of a standard pill. The performance–enhancing pill increases a non–prescribed student’s ability to focus intently on a task at hand. You can stay up all night finishing a paper or reading “without the horrible crash of caffeine,” as Steve puts it.

But Adderall’s uses go beyond making your math homework exciting. Some snort it before going out to increase their tolerance. According to Steve, “You will most likely brown out, but probably not black out.” That sleepy feeling that drinking can sometimes give to people? It won’t happen on Adderall.

Steve is prescribed neither Adderall nor Ritalin, but gets it easily from his friends at home in the Midwest who do not take it every day and therefore have large surpluses of the drug. Although he knows that the drug is used at other college campuses, there is a particularly unique market for it here at Penn.

But, like almost all things, there is a social reason for using the drug as well. “At Penn, social status is so connected to success,” Steve says. He clarified that those students who are academically successful and most involved on campus are often the ones that are the most popular: “a lot of the pressure comes not only from the need to get a good job. Also, it’s cool to have a high GPA.”

This sort of pressure is felt across campus regardless of major or post–graduate plans. “I don’t know anyone for whom I can say ‘your grades don’t matter,’” Steve comments.

But the world of Adderall is unlike that of almost any other drug. Although it does have recreational uses, the social connotation of being an “Adderall user” is much different than for other drugs.

“Coke is clearly a status symbol. Rich kids have it. Weed is a hippie drug. Adderall or Ritalin, they aren’t really like that,” Steve says. “To me, I really just view it like coffee. It’s so cheap and I don’t think it’s badass.”


 Jack*, a Wharton senior who is prescribed Adderall for ADHD, comes in wearing a yellow baseball cap, with a typical grin on his face. He is known as “someone who largely doesn’t follow the beaten path,” says one friend. His quietness might be mistaken for shyness, but Jack is simply independent. He loves music to his very core and is, by all accounts, the epitome of “chill.”

Although he does give his extra pills to people who are not prescribed the drug, Jack is very strict about who he gives it to. He gives it to only two people, one of whom has ADHD but whose parents are morally opposed to the medication. He thinks of himself as “a drug dealer with a conscience, ” adding for emphasis: “that’s very rare.”

Jack was not diagnosed with ADHD until college and was very skeptical of the drugs prescribed to treat it. He didn’t believe in taking performance–enhancing drugs “unless absolutely necessary.” Before being treated for ADHD, he felt like the added new stimuli of college and his intellectually curious personality made it impossible for him to focus on any one thing enough to be successful. He says of the medication, “it helps you make that choice as opposed to there not being a choice at all.”

While effective and completely legal when prescribed, Adderall and Ritalin are both Class II controlled substances, listed in the same category as cocaine, oxycotin, opium, PCP and morphine for being as addictive as its counterparts. Common Adderall side effects include dry mouth, insomnia, headaches, abdominal pain, increases in blood pressure, emotional changes, increased heart rate and weight loss, among other things.

William Alexander, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, views Adderall abuse as “a huge problem here at Penn.” Based on anecdotal evidence as well as surveys done of students nationwide and of Penn students specifically, CAPS is well aware of the issue. At CAPS, they try to limit the amount of ADHD medication prescribed. According to Alexander, CAPS, among other Penn services including Weingarten, try to use other alternatives, including behavioral intervention.


 To many Penn students, the benefits of using these drugs outweigh the costs.  There is a perception that there is a low–risk factor involved with study drugs. “It’s a really open environment,” says Jack of Adderall use on campus. “I see drug deals go down in Huntsman GSRs or hallways.” He added that there are many other places on campus where exchanges of study drugs take place out in the open.

Steve also points out what he sees as the low risk of taking an Adderall pill: “People say that it is addictive. I don’t believe that it is chemically addicting to my brain. I don’t believe it will have permanent impact. It’s like how we rely on energy drinks, on coffee. It’s not like I require it to be productive.” The “openness” of the study drug culture at Penn, along with Adderall’s easy concealment and widespread availability, is another major factor in its popularity. “If I take out a bottle of Advil, no one is going to look at me and say, ‘oh that’s Adderall.’”

Similarly, Jack hasn’t encountered any serious health problems from his experiences with Adderall. “It’s not a ‘problem.’ There is no shock from it. It’s not like you get really dehydrated from it like molly and have to go to the hospital.” In fact, some recreational users pick Adderall for that very reason. A friend of Jack’s is hesitant about using other drugs but Adderall is “FDA approved, so he was more open to the idea of using it. When he snorted it [before going out], you essentially saw him become the life of the party.”

The openness of Penn’s campus is apparent in the way that news of those who have access to the drugs spread so quickly across campus via word of mouth. “It is almost hard not to sell it when you are prescribed because it’s just too easy,” Jack explains.

And Penn students are not alone. A study by the Univeristy of Wisconsin found that as many as one in five college students has taken Adderall or Ritalin without a doctor’s prescription.

In 2008, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, run by the government, conducted a survey and found numbers that were lower than those found in the University of Wisconsin study, but still rather alarming: 6.4% of students had used the drug in the past year and that 18 to 22 year–old college students were twice as likely to have abused Adderall than non–students from the same age bracket.

While Adderall is certainly used recreationally to give Smoke’s or a frat party a little more spark than usual, the principle use of the drug on campus seems to be for a more mundane reason: to get better grades. It seems counterintuitive that some of Penn’s best students are also using drugs. But Adderall is not a typical drug. According to Steve, in many ways Adderall use is linked  “to ambition…it is more skewed for people who want to do well.” When you really get down to it, it’s a drug for nerds.


Original article was published by 34th Street Magazine. It can be found here