The Independent, 24th June 2017
It’s safe to say that, from their early beginnings as prescription medication for narcoleptics and the odd productivity booster for enterprising pharmacology students, study drugs have now been integrated fully into modern student life.
In fact, a student article for the Bristol Tab says that they’ve become as much part of the university experience as “disappointing sex and watching too much daytime television”.
The statistics would support that: a nationwide survey showed that one in five students have used study drugs at UK universities, and the Oxford University student newspaper Cherwell found it was more like one in four there.
In response, Oxford University‘s Student Union in April launched workshops on the safe usage of the drugs, telling Trinity College students in an email that they wanted to explore “the reasons why people might start using smart drugs, and suggest safe and sustainable solutions”.
But now, Cambridge Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and global expert on cognitive-enhancing drugs, Dr Barbara Sahakian, argues that licensing study drugs to students might be a good idea.
“I think the government should look at the front runner drug that people are using as a cognitive enhancing drug… and actually get together with the drug company and assess whether it’s safe and effective for people to use,” she told The Independent.
“If it is, then let them license it, and maybe sell it in Boots, and have people have the usual information about the side effects and then they can also go to their GP before they take it.”
Dr Sahakian’s research has spanned drugs like modafinil, which is the most popular in the UK, and Ritalin and Adderall, which have gained notoriety in the United States.
Her comments come as UK-based websites selling modafinil have been closed down by the UK government, and campuses such as Duke University in North Carolina have banned them to prevent cheating.
Dr Sahakian thinks that the current system is dangerous for students, since when buying drugs online “you don’t know what you’re getting – it could be anything”.
“When you think about it, a lot of people what they do is really dose themselves with coffee and caffeine and then they end up with palpitations and tremors and things like that, so in some ways I prefer [modafinil],” she said.
“There are many students who leave things rather late and try to cram for the exam and then want to take a drug to keep them awake and alert.”
“If they’re going to do it I’d rather ensure that they’re not harmed by it.”
In fact, she says, there might even be other places where study drugs would be worth using.
“There may be other contexts in which we want a better cognitive enhancing drugs – we know that people fall asleep at the wheel all the time when they’re driving.”
“Perhaps…if it’s a safe awake and altering agent, there might be a place for it.”
Sahakian argues that although there have been reported cases of study drug use leading to anxiety and other mental health problems, the real risk is in “drug/drug interactions” and students “taking too much”.
“That’s why doctors telling you what dose to take are so important, rather than students taking someone else’s drug or buying the drug over the internet or whatever they’re doing.”
“If it was licensed, they could check the person out and say you haven’t got high blood pressure, you’re not on any other medication – that type of thing. And then they could come back to the doctor if they had a side-effect they were concerned about and the doctor could also advise them on the safe dose.”
The science seems to be behind it, and anecdotal evidence from students across the UK suggests that if all night essay crises are the problem, brain-boosting pills might now be the solution of choice.
But what are they actually like to use? The Independent spoke to some students about their experiences.
“I got a very good mark in my Prelims [first year exams], and I can put it basically entirely down to using modafinil, quite confidently,” said Chloe, an Oxford student.
“At the beginning of my first year of Oxford I got into a group of friends who were all quite druggy. The leader of the friendship group was very into ‘uppers’ – cocaine, Adderall, those kinds of drugs.”
“We got really into that and we thought it was really fun and we’d take it and go to lectures, and you know. We didn’t just use it for studying.”
The drugs give you an edge in the classroom, making you “so much more focussed”, according to another student, Tom. He says that “if I’m planning on spending a day in the library, then taking a modafinil ensures I’m going to be making the most of my time relatively distraction free.”
“I take it whenever the need is there, for upcoming deadlines, upcoming collections [college tests] or upcoming exams, possibly averaging a once or twice a week.”
For Jack, who studies Physics at Warwick, “it was a bit much the first time I took it because it was about eight hours, not even of just concentration but just completely immersed in what you were doing.”
“This for a lab report – in Physics you do six pages of an experiment that you’ve done, it’s quite tedious. It’s the sort of thing that would usually take me about a week or two to do properly, whereas this time I managed to sit through an entire day, and managed to get to over a week’s position on it in one day, purely because without that interest I couldn’t sit down and stay concentrated enough to do it.”
Chloe said that when she first used study drugs, “it wasn’t actually a very good essay but it just gave me the motivation to actually sit down and write something, which can be the hardest thing in the first place.
But after using modafinil every day for revision, she described the effects of going cold turkey over the summer holidays. “The thing about modafinil is that it also gives you incredible anxiety,” she says.
“In one of my exams I was on modafinil and I suddenly had a brain fog and I went into a panic attack – probably my first ever panic attack. And I almost put up my hand and left the exam hall, but I just got it together and wrote a terrible essay.
“As much as the drugs did help me do really well in my Prelims and get all my essays done and keep on top of everything in my first year, I also developed crippling anxiety.”
Jack worries that some of the people he sells the pills to might not be sensible in their usage. “From the age of 13, my friendship group has always been taking some sort of drugs, and I’ve always been the sensible person – I always seem to know how to not take it too far. For the rest of my friends that’s not the same.”
That was what got him into the drugs, but he soon realised there was some cash to be made from students and their famous inability to work to deadlines.
“I buy these from a website for about 70p each, and then the typical price I sell for is about £3, because I know that other people sell them too.
“It was quite easy for me to stretch beyond my friendship group or friends-of-friends, and say ‘oh you can sell these to friends for £2 each’, and they’re not getting a bad deal compared to what I buy them for.”
A quick internet search confirms that buying modafinil online costs about £20 for thirty tablets, and there are a variety of brands and online pharmacies that advertise their products as the best.
Modafinil, as a ‘medicinal product’, is not covered by the UK’s 2016 Pyschoactive Substances Act, although many universities and students have attempted to ban study drugs because of the advantage they give their users.
Do students think they’re unfair?
No, says Jack – it’s only a small difference. “It’s quite like having a motivational coach. If your version of that is to be able to take a pill that helps you concentrate a bit more for a couple of hours then I wouldn’t say that was far enough of an advantage to complain about.”
Tom agrees. “The difference is that we’re not all in competition in academia. The point of sports is the competition, the point of our degrees are to educate us as individuals.”
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said that “while we have yet to see truly convincing evidence that the use of cognitive enhancement drugs is a widespread problem at Oxford, we would strongly advise students against taking any drugs that have not been prescribed to them”.
Names have been changed to maintain interviewees’ anonymity