Published on March 4, 2013 | by Jonny Perrin


Study drugs: Legal high

More and more university students are buying study drugs to deal with heavy workloads [Flickr: Tulane PR]

Any worthwhile academic endeavour is going to take effort, motivation, concentration and a strong thought process. This isn’t easy for everybody, and if it’s not then people will find ways to make it easier.

One answer to this is a new phenomenon of ‘study drugs’.

Also known as ‘nootropics’ or ‘smart drugs’, the supplements seem perfect for students as they offer a tempting road to a simpler qualification. Supposedly.

Study drugs are not difficult to find. While some, like Ritalin, are illegal without a prescription, others such as Onnit’s Alpha Brain are sold commercially.

The latter has even been advertised on The Joe Rogan Experience and the Rooster Teeth Podcast, which are ranked 11th and 16th respectively for comedy podcasts on iTunes.

Ups and downs

Alpha Brain seems to typify the agenda of the study drug. It promises to give you “razor focus, mental drive and lucid dreams” according to So basically everything it takes to be a good student; the ability to work hard, and a good night’s sleep!

What’s the catch? Well, price is one. One month, on a minimum dosage, will cost you about £25 excluding delivery. There is also the chance it won’t affect you at all.

One reviewer on Amazon also said he felt “super light headed and twitchy” after taking one dosage.

However, compared to other drugs that students have been taking for their studies it seems to be fairly harmless. Importantly, it is also currently legal to trade and possess.

Two of the most popular, and perhaps more well-known, study drugs do not share the same legal freedoms. Ritalin and Adderall are both controlled substances in the UK, making it illegal to possess both these drugs without a valid prescription.

They are usually prescribed to children and adults who have been diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy.

Possessing either, without validity, can lead to up to five years imprisonment for possession, or 14 years for supply. If that doesn’t sound risky enough then there’s always the possible side effects that can range from headaches to seizures.

Personal experiences

So why do people take them? 21-year-old BA Journalism student Harriet Sokmensuer was diagnosed with ADHD aged 11 and was prescribed Adderall soon afterwards.

“I took it daily until I was 18. It did make me calmer, and work a lot harder, but in a robotic kind of way. Adderall makes you focus on one thing and then you’d be stuck on whatever you were doing.”

“I took Adderall daily until I was 18. It did make me calmer, and work a lot harder, but in a robotic kind of way.” Student, Harriet Sokmensuer

Hearing this makes it sound like the perfect essay writing supplement. However she went on: “I would lose my appetite and could spend 10 hours at a time working. It was like work and then boom, 10 hours had gone by. No lunch, no talking, just work. I stopped taking it when I was 18 and was switched to another drug, Vyvanse, which made me more myself.”

Sokmensuer says that Adderall did help her with her studies, but at the price of social interaction. An article on the Huffington Post website about another teenager who had taken Adderall hints that this “robotic” side effect isn’t an isolated case.

In the article the unnamed youth says: “My friends started to notice how I was acting weird. They didn’t like how competitive and obsessive about schoolwork I was becoming.”

A Guardian article features stories of young peoples taking Adderall. “When I was on it I was more like a zombie or a robot. My friends didn’t concern me much; all I wanted to do was work,” one story reads.

The account continues detailing how he eventually crashed into anxiety and delirium, and he soon quit it for good, losing his anxiety while maintaining high grades.

Easily obtainable

Sokmensuer said that these prescription study drugs were not difficult to get hold of: “Kids sell it to other kids in school, and they don’t know how to use it. I don’t think Adderall or Ritalin should be for kids.”

At UAL there have been rumours of people being offered study drugs and judging by how many stories about people trying them there are on websites such as The Student Room, it surely can’t be difficult to acquire substances like Adderall.

Most people know how easy it is to get other illegal substances, so how hard can it be to get hold of these?

“I’d definitely try them if I was offered them. I’ll try anything once” Anonymous

The idea of improving your focus and becoming more efficient are intriguing and even slightly tempting but at the cost of ones personality, is it worth the risk? It seems that others agree with that not being the case.

After asking students around the university if they would try them, the response was balanced equally between yes or no.

One person, who wished to remain anonymous, said “I’d definitely try them if I was offered them. I’ll try anything once, and if it helps me with my workload I’d consider taking them regularly.”

A girl at the LCC, who identified herself only as ‘Katie’, said, “I’m not sure, but probably, yes. I’m paying a fortune to be here so what are a few side effects if it means I get a better grade?”

Adderall has the ability to make you study non-stop for ten hours but has social repercussions [Flickr: Aaron Jacobs]

Legal issues

Perhaps these views are short-sighted, perhaps not. Study drugs are not seen as cheating by students, and technically, they are not by exam bodies either – judging by the lack of a prominent story where a student has been disqualified in the UK for using so-called brain enhancers.

However there is still the legality issue of certain drugs, so it could easily happen with talk of “Sport-style dope tests” for students according to the Daily Mail Online.

It is almost certain that we will hear more and more about study drugs in the future, but for now it seems that the case is perhaps more of a moral choice rather than a legal choice.

There is a strong chance you’ll get in trouble if you are caught with substances such as Adderall if you haven’t got a permit.

If people are getting away with it, it will continue. But if you are tempted to risk it, it is a good idea to first think about the consequences. Is it really impossible to motivate yourself without the aid of drugs?

My experience

I’d heard of people taking study drugs when I was still in college years ago but hadn’t ever thought of taking them myself.

In fact I hadn’t even thought about them all really, believing them to be a snake oil product.

When I continued to hear of people trying things like Ritalin when I got to university I thought it was just students experimenting with drugs, rather than making an effort to improve their studies. I wasn’t interested.

Fast forward a few years however and I heard about a certain “nootropic” on the Rooster Teeth podcast called “Alpha Brain”.

Developed by Onnit, it is marketed as a product that improves mental focus, as well as giving users the power to have lucid dreams.

The ingredients of this “Alpha Brain” are all listed on the company’s website so it seemed safe enough (and legal enough, unlike other study drugs), and after hearing only good things from the people on the podcast I thought, “Eh, what’s the worst that could happen?”

They might not work, but Onnit offers a money back guarantee if a customer is not satisfied with their product.

So embracing a devil-may-care attitude, I ordered a small bottle of 30 pills – supposedly a month’s supply. £30 is kind of pricey, but if it improves my mental focus during my last year at university then it has to be worth it.

A bum deal

University students have been offerred adderall secretly on campus in a bid to work more effectively [Flickr: Gregory Cinque]

It took five days for the product to arrive, giving me enough time to re-watch the Bradley Cooper film Limitless, where a deadbeat writer suddenly becomes exceptional after taking a daily pill which unlocks the “restraints” on his brain.

Filled with optimism, I was very excited to try them when they got delivered last week. I immediatly took two pills and waited for inspiration to strike me.

I then waited a bit more, but didn’t feel much different so I got cracking with some writing.

A few hours passed before I had to go and work my part-time job. It was here I began to notice an effect of the pills. I couldn’t concentrate on my job. I was becoming easily distracted, and kept thinking about all my university work.

After getting home I immediatly fell asleep. Eight hours later, I woke up. If I did have a lucid dream, I sure didn’t remember it.

And after a few more days of taking only one pill, I wasn’t getting any closer to having them. In fact the only real effect I could identify was a constant paranoia about my university work when I was otherwise occupied.

I’ve still got over half the bottle left but I’ve become disillusioned with Alpha Brain. It promises so much, but so far I’ve gained very little. I work at the same pace I always have, and nobody has turned round and told me that my work has suddenly become world changing.

So my conclusion is that Alpha Brain exaggerates, Limitless lied to me, and good work doesn’t appear magically after taking a pill.

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