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The Ethics of Student use of Adderall

Adderall Usage on College Campuses Reaching Epidemic Proportions

Last Saturday Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that Kansas City infielder, Miguel Tejada, received a 105-game suspension for using a banned substance – Adderall. Tejada claims he had a valid prescription to use the drug but let the approval expire. That may be the case and it is important to note that MLB allows a player to use Adderall with a valid prescription from a doctor.

In this blog I focus on what I know first-hand to be a growing trend in college students, which is to use Adderall to gain an edge in the classroom: to help retain more material; to focus better in the classroom; to improve study habits; and to help cram for tests.

The drug Adderall, which is most commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has been popping up on campuses across North America. I have read estimates that one-of-three students use it at some time during their college careers.

However, many of the students don’t have prescriptions and turn to the Internet to get the drug, or reach out to a friend or family member with a prescription. Some students turn to online sales sites such as Craigslist, where a quick scan of Adderall listings shows a price tag of $1 to $10 per pill.

The ethics of using Adderall are relatively clear cut. It provides a competitive advantage, which in and of itself is not a crime. However, the edge is gained in an illegal manner. When I try to make this point to students, I am met with the explanation that gaining a competitive advantage is a long-used technique to get ahead in college.

In debates about the issue, one student asks what is the difference between the use of Adderall and downing an over-the-counter medication such as No-Doz? No-Doz is a caffeine tablet that can help relieve mental fatigue and drowsiness and assist in remaining alert and wide awake so that the user can stay productive throughout the day. No-Doz tablets contain 100mg of caffeine or approximately the same amount as a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the illegality of how Adderall has been obtained versus the legality of buying No-Doz falls on deaf ears because my students are great at rationalizing unethical action by dismissing illegalities or somehow thinking the rules do not apply to them.

The truth is, as I see it, today’s students are more concerned with an egoistic ethic – how one’s actions improve one’s performance – rather than accepting that societal norms do exist [even though they seem to be slowly disappearing]. Students can be oblivious to basic values of honesty (lying when questioned about the use of Adderall); accepting responsibility for one’s actions (blaming it on the teacher’s excessive demands in class or overly-difficult exams); and basic fairness (other students are playing by the rules and don’t have the same competitive edge).

On the medical side, one potentially serious problem is without a doctor’s approval and monitoring, students who use Adderall may use the wrong dosage and suffer severe medical consequences. One student, who shall remain nameless, confided in me that the drug has several undesirable side effects, especially when overused. Among them are nausea, nervousness and trouble sleeping. Apparently, a serious side effect common in students is a loss of appetite. Students with heavy course loads or that have trouble focusing in class who study on Adderall regularly can forget eating all together while on the super study pill. Another danger is like any other drug, the use of Adderall can be addicting and once started increasing dosages are needed to achieve the same effect.

If caught with Adderall, or any other amphetamine without a prescription (i.e., Vyvanse and Ritalin) a student can be charged with possession of a controlled substance. Though the drug may help students get ahead in classes, the consequence of getting caught with the drug could affect their future more than the test they are using Adderall to study for.

I am always dismayed when students tell me that the answer is to make Adderall available to all students through the campus health center. Rather than accept the illegality issue, all too many students apply a relativistic ethic and say that it is OK to use Adderall in the classroom because professionals use it in the workplace to be more alert and get ahead. In other words, since others use it in an illegal manner, it is ethically acceptable for students to use it for similar reasons.

When I ask my students whether they would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge because financial executives do it all the time, at first I get a blank stare that says what’s wrong with you asking such a stupid question. After a period of contemplation, I may reach that one student in whose head the proverbial light bulb turns on and says: We need to act responsibly, think for ourselves, examine all sides of an issue, and recognize that our actions have consequences, not only for ourselves but for others who are affected by our actions.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 19, 2013