Speed Reading

John Hanacek / Guardian

It’s a Saturday night and a week before the start of school — 11 weeks before the dreaded promise of finals — but Thurgood Marshall sophomore Jennifer Taylor* wants to secure her Adderall (also known as amphetamine-dextroamphetamine) supply before cartloads of anxiety-ridden college students flock to her already overdrawn supplier, jacking up prices. A smart and economical move — if you ignore the legality of the issue.

Adderall is classified as a stimulant or a drug that temporarily improves brain function in regards to memory and focus. When taken two to three times daily as prescribed, Adderall should allow patients to control previously erratic actions.

Normally, Adderall is used to treat those who suffer from Attention Deficient Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. A less lawful and more frowned-upon use is as a main ingredient in a Lohan-esque amphetamine binge and a mechanism for rapid weight loss. College students, however, seem to have adopted a different take.

“Your brain moves faster. I’m able to think faster — to read faster,”  Taylor said. “What would take me an hour to read might take me half an hour to read. You’re really focused on what you’re doing.”


Taylor isn’t alone — originally the collegiate dark horse in comparison to drugs like alcohol and marijuana, Adderall use among adults has been steadily increasing over the past decade, and usage has almost doubled since the year 2000, according to data recently released by Medco Health Solutions. This study drug has a wide basis of appeal. It’s relatively inexpensive: Pills range from $3 each to a high of $10 or $15, depending on how close midterms or finals are.

Bryan Marks*, a Muir College sophomore, obtains most of his Adderall from friends who have prescriptions, or friends of friends with prescriptions. In turn, Marks shares the powdered love by providing Adderall to friends without similar means — at an inflated price, of course. It trickles down the distribution chain: The prescription holder (usually oblivious of the value of the tiny blue pills) offloads his Adderall for a trivial amount (read: nickels and dimes); the purchaser then ups the price to a full bill as the next guy charges a $5. Marks even admits to upping Adderall prices to ridiculous amounts during finals season to score a larger profit. Everyone wins — except the consumer.

“I have more friends who abuse Adderall rather than take it,” Marks said. “Essentially, they aren’t taking it because they suffer from ADHD.”

So what’s with the excessive pill popping? “They take it because they’re studying. The people who take Adderall and party are … I don’t know too many people who use amphetamines as a foundation for their drinking.”


Adderall (and its extended-release sibling, Adderall XR) comes saddled with a weighty list of side effects: Many self-described “honest” students are outraged at the advantage Adderall users are given in the classroom setting, assigning Adderall users an undesirable social stigma. Selling Adderall is considered a felony that can earn you a $10,000 fine and up to 45 years in prison.

Additionally, the U.S. National Library of Medicine warns consumers that Adderall is known to induce nervousness, headaches, stomach pain and nausea. In some cases, an overdose could prove fatal, which will definitely put a downer on your upper.

Not that such ominous warnings come as a surprise for Adderall consumers, or even act as a proper deterrent — an alarming number of more common prescription drugs like Xanax and Prozac have been known to cause fatalities when consumed by less-than-healthy or undiscerning patients. Addiction and dependency is the more pressing concern for the average user who — according to psychiatry professor Marc Schuckit — may find himself experiencing heightened paranoia and aggression as he ups dosage for increased effect.

“If I take a high dose of Adderall or a high dose of speed on the street, I can die exactly the same way, with convulsions and cardiac arrhythmias,” Schuckit said. “If I take regular doses for a high of Adderall or regular doses for a high of amphetamine I might buy on the street, I am likely to become very paranoid, believing people are trying to harm me and maybe hearing voices. It’s temporary — it will go away, but you can be pretty impaired while it’s there.”

Adderall, Schuckit explained, is a legalized version of speed, sort of. It’s not the drug itself that’s illegal, it’s the way people take it. Both are amphetamines — which can be disastrous in large quantities, regardless of whether you suffer from ADD or not. But what about when students take Adderall in measured, low doses? “I can’t help anymore, I’m sorry,” Schuckit replies.

Nancy Downs, an associate physician diplomat in UCSD’s psychiatry department, agreed that using Adderall at varying frequencies without being prescribed — in other words, the college user who wants it for an edge on finals — is harmful.

Downs explained that stimulants could cause cardiac Small Vessel Disease, when a user’s small vessels — the arterioles — get clogged through repeated stimulant use. Cardiac Small Vessel Disease can lead to a heart attack or result in acute chest pain. This condition is most common in cocaine users, Downs said, adding that she’s opting to discuss the effect of stimulants on users in very general terms rather than being Adderall-specific.

“Yes, stimulants do improve performance in healthy control subjects, unless they have one of underlying risk factors [such as anxiety], in which case it wouldn’t improve performance,” Downs said, “Absolutely. That’s why caffeine is so popular.”

Jaime Pineda, an associate professor of cognitive science, explained how Adderall functions: “Amphetamine causes neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine, norepinephrine and other biogenic amines to be released at the synapses.” In layman’s terms, Adderall — like cocaine and caffeine — targets the mesolimbic reward pathway and makes people feel good. And feeling good can be addicting.

There is some good news for Adderall users: According to the New York Times, Adderall is far less dangerous than cousin-drugs cocaine and methamphetamine. Additionally, the Times reports that Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, the makers of Adderall, have conducted medical research and deduced that the drug has no potential for addiction (though other studies have suggested otherwise). By no means is it risk free, but a relatively sunny 70 years of Adderall use by the general public indicates the drug’s unique dichotomous position as a study drug may be due, at least in part, to social stigma and moral disapproval rather than health implications.


Adderall hasn’t given Taylor any of Adderall’s notorious side effects of paranoia or isolation. When asked, during our now extensive walk, Taylor deadpanned. No. Of course she wasn’t hallucinating or feeling paranoid.

However, right before reaching her supplier’s door she reluctantly admitted, “I don’t feel comfortable going into a final without it. My grades are so much better now.” And with the drug’s identity in eternal limbo, who is to say cultural acceptance isn’t palpable? Everything in moderation.

With that, she turned the doorknob and walked through the doorway.

*Names have been changed to protect student’s identity.