Notes and textbooks litter study desks as students type away furiously on their laptops, a race against time to finish final papers before deadline.
They chug energy drinks and coffee with bloodshot eyes while their brain sends constant reminders to sleep rather than cram an entire semester’s worth of information to short-term memory. Loitering between the shelves, hidden behind stacks of books, are illegal pharmacists, hungry to sell the stimulant prescription that they talked a doctor into writing them. From anywhere between $10-$20 a pill, you can buy a variety of “study drugs”—from Adderall to Ritalin or Vyvanse. Just a small dose is enough to trick your brain into feeling more productive. As a student, I’d be lying if I said that on some days, it’s not a tempting offer. Amphetamines, like Adderall, have a history of off-label use. The Millennial drive for perfection has only added to the amphetamine craze of the Adderall generation.

What is the Adderall Generation?

I’m a member of the “Adderall generation,” the 18-25-year age range most likely to misuse ADHD medication. This generation, a mixture of young Millennials and older members of Generation Z, are characterized by the way we don’t believe in the American Dream and have an entrepreneurial desire. We’ve grown up under the effects of The Great Recession and quickly learned that it’s not enough to just be good anymore—we need to be great. College isn’t just about getting an education; instead, it’s a time to build a resume that can land you an entry-level position requiring three years of prior experience.
It’s not enough for us to just work hard anymore. We are defined by our desire for perfection and our need to set ourselves apart from the thousands of other graduates that are entering the workforce. In order to become the person that society tells us we need to become, we stretch ourselves thin and become overinvolved.
I’ve become victim to the need to do everything. During my junior year, I forced myself to take 18-credit hours each semester, work full-time for the school newspaper, take on an unpaid internship, and devote hours each week to freelance writing for exposure. I joined a few more student organizations and found myself serving on several boards and committees. Despite everything I was doing, I still didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I became best friends with my coffee maker and distant friends with my bed. I’ve brewed my coffee with Red Bull once, after two consecutive all-nighters. But caffeine can only do so much when you have a paper due in six hours, an exam in the morning, and you’ve spent more time in the library today than you have in your bed the entire week. This is where Adderall, or any stimulant, seems to become a miracle drug. For the price of two drinks at a coffee shop, the Adderall generation can experience hours of feeling limitless and hyper-focused.

Drug Deals in Libraries

If you’ve ever been on a college campus, it looks nothing like the dark alleys that drug deals are notorious for taking place in. Stimulant sales don’t happen under the cover of darkness; they happen in student unions, dormitories, and libraries. Several studies have confirmed that the use of stimulants on college campuses is widespread.  In the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were about 406,000 young adults aged 18-25 in 2014 that were nonmedical users of stimulants. In a study examining lifetime non-medical prescription drug use among college students at Skidmore college, it was found that out of 303 students, 110 (36.8%) admitted to using prescription drugs non-medically and 72.8% reported a non-medical use of stimulants. When asked about their motives for stimulant abuse, college students cited the following reasons for use:

  • Because it helps me concentrate.
  • Because it helps me study.
  • Because it helps increase my alertness.
  • Because it gives me a high.
  • Because of experimentation.
  • Because it helps me lose weight.
  • Because it counteracts the effects of other drugs.
  • Because it is safer than street drugs.
  • Because I’m addicted.

Brief History on Amphetamines

The 1930s paved the way for the more common medical use for those with ADHD, but it was also found that amphetamines could be used as a neuroenhancer. Most countries established regulations for amphetamine usage by 1980, restricting the legal uses. Under the Convention of Psychotropic Substances, amphetamines is classified as a Schedule II drug, which means it has an accepted medical use, but remain tightly monitored to limit its potential for abuse. Despite these new laws, amphetamine prescriptions and abuse continue to grow, with several doctors prescribing amphetamines for off-label use, such as treating depression. When the United States Federal Education Department began classifying ADHD as an educational disability in 1991, ADHD diagnoses increased from one to three million. Since then, pharmaceutical companies have publicized the syndrome and focused their marketing on educators and parents as a “cure” for hyper children. Because of this, ADHD has become the second most frequent long-term diagnosis made in children.
History Of Amphetamines Infographic
Recently, pharmaceutical companies have begun recognizing adults as a market with a huge potential for profit. In 2012, nearly 16 million prescriptions for ADHD medications, such as Adderall, were written for patients between the ages of 20 and 39. However, pharmaceutical companies aren’t limiting their marketing efforts to adults that have ADHD. By highlighting amphetamines ability to improve focus and attention, pharmaceutical companies are able to market amphetamines as a neuroenhancer for those looking to boost cognitive function. From prescription stimulants to nootropics (artificial and natural compounds that are thought to enhance cognitive function), the idea of changing your brain to give you an edge is growing in popularity and has become a billion dollar industry.

The "Side Hustle"

As college all-nighters end and the post-grad life begins, the Adderall generation is becoming prey to the “side hustle,” a term coined to represent the gig that you do in addition to your day job. We become rideshare drivers, write personal essays for the internet, and bring start-ups to life. Just like our college days, we turn to what seems like a miracle pill. It’s easy to convince a doctor to write an Adderall prescription and there are forums dedicated to telling you exactly what to say to warrant an ADHD diagnosis. Despite how uncomfortable the side effects of Adderall can be, it’s easy to ignore a few uncomfortable side effects for the energy and invigoration that Adderall provides. Many Adderall abusers will create a cocktail of pills to manage side effects like headaches and insomnia. To combat the sleeplessness from the stimulants, the Adderall generation may turn to benzodiazepines to help them catch some sleep. This combination of downers and uppers puts an increased stress on their hearts, leading to hypertension and tachycardia.
Long term abuse of Adderall can weaken the heart muscle and result in changes of the brain. By increasing the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, amphetamine abuse can lead to depression, hostility, and paranoia.
This cycle of prescription drug abuse can be incredibly dangerous, especially as tolerance for the drugs and dependence increases. Despite its appearance as a miracle pill, Adderall has a high potential for addiction. This psychological dependence on Adderall—the routine of using stimulants to keep yourself going—can cause physical effects of stress when you are denied access to the drug.  Physical dependence may occur when your brain adapts to the high levels of dopamine in the brain and not taking Adderall causes dopamine levels to drop, triggering withdrawal symptoms. When your dormitory pharmacist is sliding a pill into your hand, they never tell you the hard truth: you’re trading more than a few dollars for some Adderall. Instead, you’re selling your appetite, nights you could have slept, and your happiness. One night of complete focus to cram for finals is a tempting offer, but it’s costing you more than you think.