We asked students and student journalists from across Canada to probe the use of study drugs on their campus. In more than 20 interviews with their peers, students said they turned to the drugs, often ahead of exams, because they were juggling too many non-academic commitments, or felt anxious they would be shut out of graduate school without strong grades. Kate Black (University of Alberta, The Gateway), Harrison Boyd (Carleton University), Sarah Hurst (University of Windsor), Geoff Lister (University of British Columbia, The Ubyssey), Molly Korab, Jordan Venton-Rublee and Dana Wray (McGill University, McGill Daily), Zane Schwartz (University of Toronto, The Varsity) and Tyler Welch (McMaster University, The Silhouette) interviewed the students in this project. These are some of the experiences they heard:
When do students use "study drugs"
Everyone knows about them. I had a friend who was taking them. I think I had a 16-page paper. I took two and wrote it in three hours. It was just super helpful, so that's why I started. – University of Alberta, fourth-year political science
I think I've taken it on average about three times per term during exams for the past three years. I only take during finals or in some years for midterms. I never take it at other times during the year. – Concordia University, fourth-year, urban planning,
It was mostly for experimentation and stuff like that, but when I realized how sharp it made me and I could stay up for days, and just not eat and be focused, I got more and more into using them. Over the last year, it got to the point where I was taking stimulants seven or eight times a day. When you're doing them that often basically you're not stimulating yourself do anything besides wait around fidgeting for an hour until you can take your next dose. – University of Alberta, fourth-year English
Why are students trying "study drugs"
University is kind of a competitive place. If there's something you can do to give yourself an edge ... you're not smoking crystal meth here. Like people are going to do it and [it's a] prescription drug which is pretty easily available because lots of people are prescribed it. – University of Alberta, master's in public health
I've used Ritalin ... I took it last year because I had a lot of essays to write. Usually I would procrastinate a lot, and then the two days approaching the deadline I would binge on that and just stay up all night and finish my work. – UBC, second-year
I think it was motivated by a fear of not getting into medicine. I think initially it was probably motivated by the fact that I was highly overwhelmed with the course, – McGill University, first-year medicine student
[This] was something that would allow you to sit down for a one-day stretch and complete an assignment as opposed to doing it piece wise over a couple of days or a couple of weeks. – University of Toronto, graduate student in life sciences
A form of cheating?
[University] … shouldn't be a competition it should be about exercising our brains and producing intelligent people that can better our world. And if we have tools that can do that we shouldn't try and take people down who are trying to do that. – University of British Columbia, fourth-year psychology student
If you look at learning not as just trying to get a higher grade and get a higher placement in a course, it actually might be increasing the rate that you are gaining knowledge and intelligence from this university, then it's not cheating as much as it is self-interest in trying to gain the most in the quickest way from these courses. – UBC, biology student
The financial cost
Money was a little bit tight and someone goes 'Hey, you got Adderall?' and I say 'How much?' ... Twenty dollars for a pill. That was supply and demand. It was exam time, and they were like 'isn't that a little high?' I was like 'do you want it or not?' – McMaster, third-year psychology student, has a prescription for Adderall
Most of the people you sell to are students. They're first year, second year, third year students. It's a great drug to sell. No one ever tries to stab you. You don't get the kind of desperate people you find when moving other drugs. – third year Algonquin College student
The health costs
I've had a few bad experiences with the last few times I've taken it. Lately, I've found that after taking a pill I'll get a short high where I feel really euphoric and then after around 15 minutes of that my mood will drop drastically. I still feel intensely focused but I feel moody, nervous, and anxious. What's bad is mostly the drop of this mood shift that can feel really awful – Concordia, fourth-year Urban Planning
I guess what motivated me to stop taking it was the fact that I was realizing that it was just turning off my brain and it was just making me emotionally dead basically and very unresponsive… mostly got rid of it … because my new curriculum is based on the pass-fail system so it allows you to approach studying on a more organic basis instead of learning for an exam, or learning for a grade. You are no longer competing for a grade, the whole aspect of 'oh I need a 4.0 to get into medicine' is gone, you are there already. – McGill, first-year medicine
Studying without 'study drugs'
[It] probably wasn't to begin with as difficult as I made it out to be when you're rationalizing drug use and stuff like that. It's really easy when you're on it. You sort of demonize how it is without it because it feels so great when you're on these drugs and studying and learning things. You feel like a champ and you'll pop meth or Adderall before an exam and tear through the whole thing. You forget how easy it was before when you were sober. There's no one here at the university who's a total idiot. Nobody's taking a 300-level course when you don't know how to pass a 300-level course. It's just when you're on meth that you feel like you're the best that you can be. – University of Alberta, fourth-year English
Usually I think the only way to tell if they're working is to objectively measure your performance in some way. For one semester, I did make an effort to do that with my test scores. I set up a stack that I thought would be optimal based on what I'd researched and found that there was an increase in my performance. But if that was due to the supplements or if that was a placebo or a greater motivation to do well in my courses I don't know. – UBC, biology student
I honestly don't think it was even that helpful. I think it made me feel that I could study better. Oh, I have to study now because I took an Adderall. – Carleton, fourth-year journalism
I don't think it was helpful enough and I realized it was only a very short-term kind of solution to things, that I needed to learn how to be more efficient on my own, or to not take up so many activities in my life, that I can keep up with my schoolwork. – McGill University, fourth-year, international development