This article was featured on Ones to Watch.
It’s coursework time and deadlines are looming. But, it’s cold outside and watching another episode of whatever’s on TV seems much more appealing. When it seems far easier to get under your duvet and hibernate, the offer of a “smart drug”, to sharpen your mind and get back to work sounds like a great way out, right? Focusing on work, making revision fun and being sent into a Limitless, Bradley Cooper-inspired frenzy sounds to good to be true.
A trend in the rise of performance enhancemet drugs Modafinil and Ritalin has been reported. Originally made to treat narcolepsy and ADHD, and sent out to Afghanistan for tired soldiers by the Ministry of Justice, more and more students are turning to the drugs for an easy way to get motivation levels up. A BBC survey revealed that a massive 92% of those who used the drugs would do so again.
Smart drugs allegedly make you want to do tasks that you know must be done; they sharpen your concentration, boost the memory and aid problem solving, as well as making you feeling awake naturally. In short, they make mundane jobs like revision and coursework enjoyable. They’re not even expensive. A month’s supply will set you back around £30-£35: the price of two LCR nights.
What about their legality? Ritalin is a class B drug, which means that if you are caught with it, you can face a five year prison sentence or an unlimited fine. However, Modafinil is not illegal. Although it is a prescription only drug, it isn’t a controlled substance and being caught in possession of it isn’t illegal.
There are, of course, side effects. These can include anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia and loss of appetite. The effects are inconsistent; one user reported severe dehydration and said it did little to help his concentration, just keeping him awake, while another said they would reccommend it if work was piling up. Both commented on the severity of the “sleep debt” – both set alarms the next day and slept through them. Pretty risky if you are using the drugs to cram the night before an exam. The pills seem to act as an appetite suppressant, many users noticing they lost weight while using the drugs. There have been no long term tests on the effects of smart drugs on normal, healthy people, so the inconsistency of these effects are concerning.
“I was getting my work done quicker than I normally would have, but that was all I was doing. I didn’t have time for food, time to talk my housemates or to take a break. For the purposes of my work it was great, but the sheer level of determination was a little frightening – particularly for those around me”, commented a UEA student who tried the drugs for his first year exams.
The ease at which they can be purchased seems to be a large selling point amongst students. Some have reported sellers being on their campuses and others say that “if you try hard enough”, a GP will prescribe it themselves.
So, is it cheating? There are beliefs that although the drugs give you an advantage, it isn’t exclusive. The only thing stopping others from purchasing is personal choice. One student even compared it to sleeping pills prescribed to students around exam time, allowing them to work better in the daytime. It doesn’t make you more intelligent or give you an edge others don’t have, it simply allows you to work harder.
Of course, not everyone is as accepting of smart drugs. Despite some treating it with an “each to their own” philosophy, others have reservations. Emily, a second year psychology student, commented:
“If you’re struggling so much that you need to resort to smart drugs, you probably shouldn’t be here. University is challenging academically, but that’s the way it should be.”
Testing isn’t in place yet, but some universities are discussing how to detect students who have been using the drugs around exam times.
Professor Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, told the Independent: “People are starting to think about drug testing. Some students who don’t use cognitive enhancers may demand it because they are concerned about cheating. Some admissions tutors are also concerned about it.
“A screening process should become necessary at exam time if use of performance-boosting drugs becomes a problem.”
Union of UEA Student’s Academic officer Josh Bowker considers the concerns that lead students to turn to smart drugs:
“The issue with ‘smart drugs’ is not the morality of whether or not this is cheating, it is that this is potentially dangerous. There are many dangers with using drugs such as Ritalin or Modafinil when you do not have the condition they are intended to address.
“No student should feel that they need to resort to these kind of drugs in order to pass their exams, there is plenty of help out there if you are struggling academically. If you feel under pressure and like you need help with study skills, book an appointment with the Learning Enhancement Team in the Dean of Students office.”
If you have taken drugs or are considering whether to, and are concerned about any reactions or long term effects, contact the Talk to Frank drugs helpline on 0800 77 660 00 or NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 for advice.