Prescription drug abuse rises on campuses

University of Memphis student Sarah Harrison doesn't indulge in other people's prescription drugs, but she knows plenty of college kids who do.

Making her way across campus on a rainy afternoon, the junior said, "I mean, anyone can get it, and if you don't have it, someone will sell it to you."

Harrison is referring to Adderall, a widely prescribed drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Drug abuse on college campuses isn't limited to binge drinking and illegal drugs. Across the nation, prescription drugs are now the second most-abused drug after marijuana, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

And the White House is calling prescription drug abuse the nation's fastest-growing drug problem.

But it's not just students looking to party who are popping other peoples' prescription pills.

Stimulants used to treat ADHD, like Adderall and Ritalin, are among popular study drugs on campus, as students use them to help focus while pulling all-nighters.

"It helps them get all their work done," Harrison said.

But because the legal drug culture has only been on the radar for a few years, there is still limited data on prescription drug abuse on college campuses, said James G. Murphy, associate professor of psychology at the U of M.

In turn, universities are not attacking it on the same level as illegal drugs and alcohol. "It's hard to get people to recognize it as a problem," Murphy said.

His research focuses heavily on addiction among college students. In a culture where people fuel up several times a day on Starbucks and Red Bull, depending on stimulants is a way of life, Murphy said.

So when a student reaches for someone else's prescription drugs to stay wired for a late-night cram session, it isn't always perceived as drug abuse.

Nevertheless, taking and selling drugs that haven't been prescribed by a physician is illegal and dangerous, Murphy said.

Abusing prescription stimulants can result in death, addiction, respiratory problems, seizures and cardiovascular issues, such as an irregular heartbeat, according to a report by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Those risks skyrocket when prescription drugs are used in ways not intended, Murphy said. "When taken crushed and snorted, all bets are off," he said.

Prescription drugs, including opioids and antidepressants, are responsible for more overdose deaths than street drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ashley Dennhardt, a U of M graduate student who recently completed an in-depth paper on drug use on college campuses, was shocked how prevalent prescription drug abuse is among college kids.

"They use it to work hard and play hard," she said.

But the irony is, it doesn't help them do any better in school, she said.

"Students who use stimulant drugs as not prescribed by a doctor had lower grades," said Dennhardt. "It's interesting, since one of the highest motives for taking them is to improve school performance."

Of college students who reported having abused prescription stimulants, more than 65 percent say they did it to sharpen their concentration, while 31 percent did it to get high, according to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Not until someone sells these drugs without a prescription does it become contraband, she said.

U of M junior Thomas Morris says the students he knows taking ADHD medication without a prescription do it to study.

"It's not the partiers who do it, it's the academics," he said.

Morris, however, says he doesn't touch the stuff. Holding up a venti white chocolate mocha, he says, "This is all I need."

(Lindsay Melvin reports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.)

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