Performance-enhancing drugs were once only found consistently in the athletic world. Athletes were kicked out of performances and Olympic medals stripped when testing revealed they had used drugs giving them a performance boost over their competitors. Today, students and adults in the workplace are seeking out similar drugs to enhance their productivity.

The documentary “Take Your Pills,” a trailer for which is included above, tells the story of adults taking prescription stimulants and the dependence these drugs are triggering. Produced by Christina Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, the film explores the fine line between using prescription medications for an undiagnosed medical condition and using street drugs to obtain the same results.

One of these drugs is Adderall, a medication often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).1 The drug is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine belonging to a class of drugs known as stimulants. The drug is used to treat children with ADHD who have low levels of neurotransmitters needed to stimulate the brain and people suffering from narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder characterized by extreme tendency to fall asleep whenever the sufferer finds themselves in a relaxed environment.

However, Adderall is an addictive prescription drug with effects on the brain similar to cocaine. Over time, habitual use increases tolerance and the user is unable to function normally without it.2 While it has demonstrated positive short-term use in children suffering from ADHD, as a performance-enhancing drug, it has the same negative effects on health and life as any other addictive drug.

Adderall Sold for More than ADHD

Cramming for final exams, in an environment where the workload appears endless, college students may seek a quick fix to help them power through their studies and remain alert for more hours than the body was meant to be awake. Prescription medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse have become increasingly popular on college campuses.

Sean McCabe, research associate professor at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center, comments,3 “Our biggest concern … is the increase we have observed in this behavior over the past decade.” While some reviews of the documentary believe the film is filled with propaganda, featuring only people who make poor choices,4 research has documented a rising number of students using Adderall and other stimulants over the past decade, calling them “study drugs.”

More than 90 percent of users claim they use the drugs to increase their ability to concentrate for longer periods of time.5 In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health6 report found full-time college students younger than 22 were twice as likely as their counterparts who were not full-time college students to use Adderall nonmedically in the past year. Nonmedical use of Adderall was almost three times higher than the use of nonmedical marijuana and eight times higher than the use of cocaine.

As the potential for drug dependence or abuse is high, this is a significant public health concern. The report also found some students who took nonmedical Adderall also used central nervous system depressants to counteract the stimulant effect, which increases their risk of dependence or abuse.7 In many cases the central nervous depressant used was alcohol.

Although the numbers of students who use Adderall for nonmedical purposes vary significantly by school, the greatest proportion of users were found at private universities. Some researchers have estimated nearly 30 percent of all college students are using stimulants nonmedically.8 While all students interviewed recognized these stimulants are illegal, they believe they’re taking them to become more productive in class and to stay competitive.

In 2008, researchers interviewed 1,800 college students9 and discovered 81 percent thought illicit use of ADHD medication was not dangerous as it helped them stay focused and become more efficient. However, Adderall is a Schedule II drug, right next to cocaine, methamphetamine and morphine on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) list of scheduled controlled substances. As defined by the DEA:10

“Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous.”

Women at Greater Risk

ADHD was originally diagnosed primarily as a pediatric condition. However, the number of adults who have been prescribed medication to treat the disorder increased by 90 percent from 2002 to 2005.11 Interestingly, adults received one-third of all prescriptions prescribed for ADHD in 2006, with Adderall being the most widely prescribed in both children and adults. Despite Schedule II restrictions, illegal use became increasingly popular during the late 1990s on college campuses.

Millennials were the first generation to be prescribed Adderall for ADHD and the first to misuse and abuse the drug in high schools and colleges. In 2012, stimulant drugs were second only behind marijuana in colleges.12 American workers testing positive for amphetamine use increased by nearly 44 percent in a short four-year period leading up to 2015.13

In the years between 2003 and 2015, a sample of more than 4 million women per year found prescription rates for ADHD drugs sharply increased in all age groups. However, they rose most steeply, by nearly 700 percent, in women between ages 25 and 29. The shocking rate of increase continued in women between 30 and 34 with a 560 percent rise in prescription rates.14

The report also broke the prescription rate down by region, finding the largest increases in the southern and western U.S. states. The rate of new ADHD diagnosis has outstripped the estimated prevalence of the disorder. As the first line of treatment is almost always a prescription for stimulant medication, this recent study questions changes in diagnostic guidelines and the diagnosis of adult onset ADHD, when symptoms emerged well after adolescence.

Lead author of the study, Margaret Sibley, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Florida International University, commented:15

“If adult symptoms are being reported by patients, it shouldn’t necessarily be immediately classified as ADHD. A more careful evaluation often finds that there’s something else causing the problems, like depression or drug use — which is what we found.”