As the end of the academic year approaches and college and university students gear up for final exams, the black market for ADHD meds such as Concerta, Ritalin and Adderall will be doing a brisk business. It is what a campus newspaper at the University of Sydney calls “The Silent Rave.”

According to research published in 2006, the non-medical use of prescription stimulants (NPS) as “study drugs” among older teens and college students nationwide was 4%. More recently, however, that figure has been estimated at between 10 and 25 percent. Today, the fastest-growing demographic of those abusing prescription ADHD drugs consists of adults between the ages of 19 and 39 years.

There is certainly no shortage of supply. The Medical Abuse Project reports that while only 5.3% of college students actually had current prescriptions for ADHD medications, nearly 62% of those patients reported “diverting” their prescriptions – sharing, trading and selling their meds to fellow students. As is invariably the case with black markets, these medications command premium prices. For example, a single 35-milligram dose of Adderall can fetch $25 – and during finals week, that price can double.

What drives this illicit market in potentially dangerous prescription medications is academic pressure. One student, interviewed for an article in the State University at Buffalo publication The Spectrum, said she doesn’t feel “smart enough” to study for high-stakes exams unless she is taking Adderall, which gives her “that extra boost.” She says, “I feel like I’m on a massive high…my brain just feels super heavy like a boulder is pressing up against it but at the same time, I focus on one thing and I don’t wanna move.”

And what of dangerous side effects and the potential for addiction? Is improved academic performance worth the risks? Since ADHD drugs are technically “legal” with a prescription, many students don’t consider the possible dangers. The fact is that methylphenidate, the active ingredient in Concerta, Adderall, Ritalin and similar medications, is not as physically addictive as more common amphetamines (both prescription and illegal versions). However, the potential for addiction does exist. In addition, long-term use can result in psychosis, insomnia, chronic anxiety and loss of appetite. Concerta, in particular, has been known to cause suicidal impulses in young people, and has been targeted in litigation.

Do such drugs actually improve academic performance? Recent medical research finds they do not. In one study, published in the February issue of Addictive Behaviors, researchers concluded that “students who engaged in nonmedical use of prescription stimulants showed no increases in their GPAs and gained no detectable advantages over their peers.” Another study last year from Florida International University found that “Long-acting stimulant medications haven’t been shown to help with homework performance despite companies advertising their utility for homework time.”

Conclusion: at best, students who abuse prescription drugs such as Concerta and Adderall in order to improve their grades are wasting their money. At worst, they are risking their health.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.