Australian students increasingly taking pharmaceutical 'study drugs'

May 27, 2014
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Like many students, Jess* regularly finds herself overwhelmed with work and in need of concentration. Her solution? Stimulants – the ones that are way stronger than caffeine.

Jess is part of the growing trend of students taking prescription drugs that aren’t theirs to help them study. She started off with popping just a few, and then soon enough found herself taking them every day.

“The pills I took were more for an energy burst and clear head as opposed to better concentration,” she said. “There was a while where I took them every day, but mostly I used them when I was balancing work and uni and I couldn't manage it all and around exams, when I didn't have enough time to sleep.”

Students’ use of ‘study drugs’ has been on the rise in Australia for a while. In fact a recent study reported that it’s even more prevalent among Australian students than in the US (which has in past been widely publicised).

But despite the apparent concentration boost (and the recreational highs), even the dealers are appreciating the negative effects of ADD drugs such as dexamphetamine, commonly known as dexy, and increasingly the narcolepsy drug modafinil.

Josh* is a university graduate who has dealt illicit and prescription drugs in the past. Being diagnosed with ADD as a child, he has been prescribed a variety of stimulants over his life to help him concentrate. Josh started selling his leftovers when he realised there was a market for them, and later began ordering larger amounts of medical grade stimulants on the black market.

"Study drugs are used by those who know how to acquire them easily,” he told me. Josh also believes that most students would take them for final exams or all-nighters if given the opportunity.

He says the hottest meds on the ‘study drug’ block is dexy. “I once sold a 100 pack of dexys for $300. The individual price is around $5 a pill. Ritalin is the same price. Modafinil is like $3 a pill,” said Josh. “Dexys were the most sought after study drug, however modafinil is starting to become quite popular.”

Modafinil has previously been compared to ‘the limitless drug’ and its increased use in the workplace has been reported. Even though it’s a prescription drug in Australia, modafinil is easy to score on the internet due to its uncontrolled status overseas, notably in the UK.  

While he never actually had a prescription for modafinil, Josh used and sold it throughout his time at uni by purchasing it on the internet. “I would find my mind racing and become quite anxious after extended use. If taken too late in the night, I would find it quite difficult to sleep,” he said.

University graduate Dave* said his once excessive use of modafinil was massively detrimental to his sleep patterns and mental health. Dave has now graduated from software engineering, but had to take a year off for mental health issues that he partly attributed to his use of modafinil.

“I was taking them almost every day for like half a year,” he said. “I’d usually stay up on the computer until six or seven in the morning and then just stay in bed until the afternoon. I knew I was taking them too much and I knew I had to stop, but nighttime was when I liked to get things done.”

Dave no longer takes study drugs, but believes getting enough a good night's sleep is more helpful to students and workers than resorting to drugs.

“I was struggling with a lot of other stuff at the time and the weird sleep cycle I had definitely contributed to me having to take that time off...Now I never take anything to help me stay up, other than coffee – a healthy sleep habit is far more helpful for getting stuff done.”

Like any performance enhancing drug, questions over fairness are often raised around study drugs. Both Jess and Josh agreed that it may be unfair to students who don’t use them, but believed they were an inevitable part of university.

For Jess, her stimulant solution is no different to the other factors in life that advantage or disadvantage our studies. She finds law extremely competitive and says that people will do “anything” to get in front – including paying people to do their work. 

"I'm not saying I feel good about it or that I think it's right. That was just how I justified it in my head," she said.

Sam Caldwell

Sam Caldwell goes to The University of Technology, Sydney and is studying a BA Communications (Journalism). He’s also a passionate debater.

*Names changed for obvious reasons