MIAMI – Before he studies for a midterm or a final, a 20-year-old University of Miami pre-law student pops a Ritalin pill.
Called Vitamin R or the “cramming drug,” the small white pill keeps him and some of his dorm mates awake and increases their concentration.
But illegal and abusive use of the drug could also come with some serious side effects.
“I would go for hours studying when I took the Ritalin,” said the student, who asked that his name not be used. “In college, there is so much pressure to succeed, and this is Miami, where people want to go out and have fun, too. Sometimes you have to turn to alternative methods to succeed.”
Where college students in the past drank pots of coffee or popped diet pills to stay awake while cramming for exams, a growing number are now illegally using Ritalin.
Since 1995, the drug – widely prescribed to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD – has ranked on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of most stolen medications, said Gretchen Feussner, a pharmacologist with the federal DEA.
“It’s like speed,” Feussner said. “(Students) know it’s going to keep them awake. They know they can party hardy.
“What they don’t know (is) … if you took cocaine and put it in a pill and took it at a low dosage, it would do exactly the same thing. It’s a serious drug.”
National statistics are not available on illegal Ritalin use among college-age students, partly because Ritalin abuse tends to be dwarfed by more visible issues, such as alcoholism, smoking, AIDS awareness and abuse of drugs such as Ecstasy.
But a 1998 University of Wisconsin-Madison survey found that one in five of 100 students who responded misused the drug.
Next spring, counselors at the University of Florida in Gainesville plan to ask students about illegal Ritalin use in an anonymous annual survey given randomly to students on the campus.
During final exams this spring, University of Miami officials posted flyers and posters around the Coral Gables campus warning students of the negative effects of using unprescribed Ritalin as a late-night study aid.
In November, the school will e-mail a survey to all its students to try to determine how many are abusing Ritalin, Oxycontin, and other drugs, said Jennifer Brack, assistant dean of students.
The students will be allowed to answer the survey anonymously. Results of the online survey, expected early next year, will help counselors design more specific drug-awareness campaigns, Brack said.
Dr. Jon Shaw, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami, said one of his college patients hides his Ritalin at night because he fears his dorm mates might try to swipe some pills.
“There is no question Ritalin is being misused by college students,” Shaw said.
Students say they are given the pills by friends or buy them for about $5 a tablet from people who have been prescribed the drug.
Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, clinical director of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Health Services, said he conducted his survey after hearing reports of misuse and thinks the abuse remains pervasive today on campuses nationwide.
“On most college campuses, you can go to the library and probably walk away with some (Ritalin) easily,” Heiligenstein said.
“It has become the medicine people want to have.”
Ritalin, a powerful stimulant classified in the same category as cocaine and methamphetamines, is slowly absorbed into the blood stream, stimulating the brain and creating a chemical reaction that allows people who are distracted or hyperactive to keep their attention focused.
Legal use of the drug has skyrocketed, with a threefold increase among children between 1991 and 1995.
But it can be dangerous if abused.
One example of this comes in the case of a 19-year-old boy in Roanoke, Va., who died in 1995 after snorting Ritalin, which is normally taken orally.
“There is a potential for harm if you have a predisposition for seizures or cardiac problems,” said Dr. Aldo Morales, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.