The “Smart Drugs” Debate

Is it wrong to use Adderall and other drugs to enhance performance?

By Maggie Heffernan                                                                                          

Nicole Giannetti begins every morning in the same way: she gets up, slips on one of her many stylish pairs of ankle boots, and strides toward the Dining Center to make a 16-ounce cup of iced coffee.

Yet for Giannetti, it is not so much the taste of the beverage that she craves as the jolt of caffeine that it dependably provides her.

“I got addicted to Dunkin Donuts iced coffee over the summer,” admits the Haverford College sophomore. “It was pretty bad.”

The energy boost one gets from consuming caffeinated drinks such as coffee, Red Bull, and Monster is no new phenomenon to high school and college-aged students. Now, however, a new stimulant is entering the conversation: “smart drugs.”

So-called “smart drugs” include Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil and are typically prescribed to treat disorders such as ADHD. Students who do not have prescriptions forAdderol these drugs sometimes take them, however, in the hopes that they will be able to focus better and gain a competitive edge in the classroom. According to a 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11% of 12- to 25-year-olds use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.

And recent dialogue suggests that this percentage has only gone up.

At Haverford, however, the attitude towards “smart drugs” seems to be an exception to the national trend. In an anonymous online survey of 230 self-selected Haverford students, over half of respondents stated that taking “smart drugs” to boost academic performance is “cheating.” 22% said that they were “not sure” if this constitutes cheating.

Many respondents also noted that the use of these drugs in individuals without prescriptions for them is unfair for students who have a medical need for them.

“In order to get closer to the level of attention and focus the typical student has, someone with ADHD needs to take a medication for it,” said Haverford sophomore Chelsea Richardson. “If the use of that medication becomes normalized, then the level of attention and focus of the typical student is raised above what a student with ADHD can possibly reach.”

In addition to putting certain students at a disadvantage, taking “smart drugs” violates the Honor Code, according to some respondents.

“I absolutely believe that taking prescription stimulants when they are not prescribed for a particular diagnosis, such as ADHD, is against the Honor Code,” said a Haverford junior. “If we’re at the point where people feel the need to take stimulants to keep up and/or get ahead, there is a problem with our educational system and our societal culture around what it means to succeed.”

Forty-five percent of respondents noted that Haverford should have a specific policy regarding the use of “smart drugs.” Others voiced that instituting such a policy was not in keeping with the spirit of the Honor Code.

“I love Haverford because of how few rules there are,” commented a Haverford freshman. “Most of our community guidelines are based off of…our knowledge of what is right and our ability to decide for ourselves what to do. So, I’m just against the addition of more rules, since they go against that greater purpose.”

Very few college campuses have specific regulations regarding the use of “smart drugs.” Though Haverford’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) has a policy regarding the prescription of ADD/ADHD stimulant medications, there is no section about the use of stimulants in students who have no medical need for them. Bryn Mawr’s protocol on the use of these drugs is also unspecified: while its counseling services webpage notes that it “provides assessment, treatment, education, consultation, and referral services to support the well being and functioning of BMC students,” no mention is made of “smart drugs.”

Some colleges, such as Swarthmore, do have medication policies that address this subject. In Swarthmore’s Alcohol and Drug Policies, it is stated that “the misuse of prescription drugs, including sharing, procuring, buying, or using in a manner different from the prescribed use, or by someone other than the person for whom it was prescribed” is prohibited.

Opinions among faculty are mixed as well. When asked about his personal stance on “smart drugs,” Haverford President Kim Benston responded that the subject was “very interesting” and “very complex.” Declining to state whether or not Haverford should have a specific policy on the use of “smart drugs,” Benston furthered that he was unsure whether “pondering such issues in general leads to ‘answers.’ ”

“As for the off-label use of smart drugs…[it] is a complicated issue with a lot to consider,” added CAPS Director Philip Rosenbaum.

Some who remain undecided on the issue claim that there is not yet enough research on certain drugs to determine whether their benefits outweigh their risks for individuals who do not have medical prescriptions for them. However, a few survey respondents said that taking these drugs on special occasions—such as midterms or finals week—is an unharmful as well as understandable practice.

Indeed, it is during stressful times such as these when Giannetti’s coffee consumption increases even more.

“Caffeine is a stimulant people use to focus. Adderall is a stimulant people use to focus,” said an anonymous Haverford junior. “Are we going to ban caffeine?”