In the United States, a Schedule II drug is one that has some accepted medical use, but at the same time a high potential for abuse that may lead to severe psychological and physical dependence. Cocaine, morphine and methadone are all Schedule II substances. Imagine, then, opening Twitter one morning to be greeted by tweets from across the nation by young people that quite plainly, without redaction or self-censorship, are speaking about their use of a specific Schedule II substance. More than that--they are openly joking about this drug, applying hashtags to it, posting photos of them eating and snorting it, and attempting to buy and sell it to anyone who’s interested. All apparently with no fear whatsoever of being noticed by law enforcement, let alone their friends and family, and despite the illegitimate possession and use of the substance being a felony that is punishable by jail time.
This is precisely what’s happening as I type this sentence, because right now college students across the country are taking their final exams and some of them (an estimated 6.5 million, in fact) are using mixed amphetamine salts to increase their chances of acing the tests. Sounds pretty serious, right? But when you refer to the amphetamine in question by its brand name, which is Adderall, something interesting happens. People relax back in their seats a bit. Their concern lessens. And if they are college students, their mood might shift even more dramatically. The opening paragraph of this article might suddenly sound like the shrill objections of an overeacting
fuddy-duddy parent or politician. In other words, someone who doesn’t understand that Adderall fits into the modern college student’s diet right alongside a can of Red Bull or a strong cup of coffee--just one of the many options available to boost focus and concentration. But energy drinks and espressos didn’t send 23,000 young adults to the emergency room in 2011 (a four-fold increase since 2005). Nor do they possess the incredible potential for abuse and addiction that Adderall does. So is this drug, which shares a classificaiton with cocaine but is simulatesouly inspiring memes, hashtags and inside jokes on every social network, a bad guy or a good guy?
I’ve been on a journey around the social web to find out. I’ve eavesdropped on college students’ conversations about Adderall wherever they’re occuring, from the mirky shadows of the “dark web,” where illicit drugs are bought and sold with a cryptocurrency, to the comparitively fresh air of reddit and Twitter, where Instragrammed Adderall photos and screenshots of phone conversations are posted as if they’re not about the illegal procurement and use of a mind-altering amphetamine.
Let’s get started
Introduction to Adderall
The chances are, especially if you read the news or have attended a college in the last five years, you already know a bit about Adderall. You probably know that it’s a pharmaceutical stimulant amphetamine used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and sometimes severe depression. You’re also no doubt aware of its main effects: It increases a person’s energy, alertness, motivation and focus, especially for tasks that would ordinarily strain these faculties. You might also have heard about its less desirable side effects, like decreased appetite, heart palpitations and extreme anxiety. So instead of telling you more stuff you might already know or could read elsewhere, I’ll just give you the CliffsNotes--just the most useful facts about Adderall that are worth knowing before we delve into the things college students are saying about it.
Adderall affects people very differently, depending on whether or not they have a legitimate medical need for it.
There’s more of it than ever.
Two types, taken in lots of ways.
The main thing to bear in mind about Adderall, and this should become hugely apparent as this article progresses, is that young people who take it absolutely notice its effects, often to the point of attributing their chances of academic success directly to whether or not they take it while they study. To millions of students, it’s the lifeline that will keep them diligently tied to the task at hand, whether it’s reading hundreds of pages of dry information, or taking copious notes on a complex subjects. But at the same time, Adderall is, with no ifs, ands or buts, a hard drug--an extremely strong stimulant--and like all types of amphetamines, a person can build up a tolerance to it as time goes by. His or her brain will be drowning in dopamine on a regular basis (Adderall blocks the normal absorption of this neurotransmitter, which results in the intense feeling of euphoria and peaked concentration people get from the drug). Take too much Adderall, for too long, and you might end up physically dependent on it just to feel normal, as well as depressed, hostile, jittery and paranoid. And yet the popularity of Adderall continues to soar. We’ve already seen the first sign of this in the ever-increasing amount of amphetamine that is manufactured each year. But let’s go deeper. What evidence is there to suggest that the cult of Adderall is stronger than ever, both in popular culture and across social networks?
If you want to know how interested young people are in Adderall, the logical place to begin is where they go to find out what it is, where they can get it, how they should take it and what the likely side effects will be. That’s Google, in case you hadn’t guessed. The image above shows search activity for the query ‘Adderall’ over the last five years. It doesn’t take a graph scientist to deduce that it’s been receiving more and more interest yearon- year since 2005.
When you refine the search query to “Adderall studying,” the graph becomes even more interesting: Nothing before 2009, then a steady increase every year after that until the present time. You’ll notice though that the line doesn’t curve up smoothly as time goes on--it has jagged peaks and valleys. Here’s why.
Here’s another graph to show that more clearly. Notice how interest in “Adderall studying” is at its peak in May and December (midterms and fall finals), but totally flat-lines in the summer when college students aren’t cramming for their exams.
This is a finding that has been corroborated by chemists from the University of Puget Sound. They tested college campus waste water for traces of amphetamines and Ritalin metabolites at different points in the academic calendar. They found that during times of relatively low stress, only a few percent of students were taking an amphetamine (probably for medical reasons). During exam periods, however, amphetamine use rose by a factor of eight, with an estimated 25% of students using Vyvanse or Adderall.
So, students most want to artificially enhance their focus and concentration during exam periods. This makes sense. But once they’ve Googled “Adderall studying” and decided they need it in their life, how are they going to get it? It turns out there are three main ways. Let’s start with the shadiest.
Drugs on the Deep Web
Let’s imagine I have an exam in four days’ time and I’m convinced that without Adderall in my system, there’s no chance I’ll be able to absorb all the information required to pass it. Where can I get some without robbing a pharmacy or mugging a kid with ADHD? It turns out I can have it in my possession within three days without leaving the comfort of my computer chair. I just need to log on to an anonymous drug marketplace like the Silk Road and add it to my shopping basket. Just like this:
In case you haven’t heard of the Silk Road, allow me to briefly summarize it. It is part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines (often called the “dark web”). The dark web is a murky, strange place where- -if you’re so inclined--you can buy and sell any number of illegal things, including but not limited to guns, child pornography, fake IDs, cloned credit cards and drugs. You can even swap bundles of raw cash for Bitcoins, which make up the cryptocurrency dark web marketplaces like the Silk Road use to transact goods in an anonymous, difficult-to-trace manner. The first version of the Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in October 2013, only to be replaced by the apparently more impervious second iteration barely a month later. I logged onto version 2.0 using the Tor browser and a VPN and within two minutes I had the above items in my shopping basket: both instant and extended release Adderall tablets and capsules for an average price of about $10 a piece. It almost seemed too easy. Then again, the whole process was expedited by drug dealers who seem to go to every length to communicate the merits of their products. Case in point:
I originally located the “onion” address of the Silk Road through its discussion forum on the social news and entertainment site reddit.com. And it was by complete accident that, after screenshotting the above and closing down my Tor browser, I returned to Chrome to close down the tab containing the Silk Road subreddit and noticed this post:
Astrohaven’s pills were among those I experimentally added to my Silk Road shopping basket.
I headed back to the Silk Road to check out its drug discussion forum. Lo and behold, the story was the same, but here I found more specific information on the matter.
It turns out that getting one’s hands on Adderall through the deep web might not be all plain sailing. It was while reading through the Silk Road’s forum that I noticed talk of the second method someone might use to acquire Adderall, which actually has nothing to do with the deep web. Here a Silk Road user sums it up quite colorfully:
And several redditors back in the Silk Road subreddit echoed the above sentiment with their own thoughts:
This is a huge part of the Adderall debate: The ease with which a young person, especially a student, can secure a legitimate prescription for the drug merely by telling a doctor they need it, and then use and abuse it in whatever way they see fit. And once they have the pills in their possession, they can do something other than eat and snort them. They can sell them to other students who can’t get their own Adderall, perhaps because they’re uninsured or have already blown through their personal supplies. An uninsured student might pay $6 to $8 a pill at retail price, but buying them ten at a time from a student who does have insurance (or is still on their parents’), can drop the price to $3 to $5 a pill. With a military or insurance discount, a college student can buy Adderall XR for under $1 a pill, wander into the library during finals and sell it to any number of stressed out students for three to five times more. The result is college campuses that are scattered with millions of Adderall capsules and tablets. And I mean literally scattered. Forget the Dark Web. Just head to a college library or classroom at the end of a semester and have a general look around.
Those photos were posted on Twitter, which is my next calling point, and boy, it’s a doozy.
Adderall on Twitter
Twitter is fairly well known as being a place where people say anything and eveything that’s on their minds. It stands to reason then that during finals, some college students will tweet about Adderall. I expected this before I turned my attention to it as a source of information on the topic. What I didn’t expect was the sheer volume of Adderall-related tweets that are flooding the microblogging site right now (mid-December 2013). Moreover, I had no idea so many students would be as open and blasé about their use of it as they are.
I began by scraping the most recent 10,000 tweets containing the word “Adderall.” It turns out it had only taken five days for these to amass. To the left you can see the profile photos of about 20% of the people who made the 10,000 tweets, along with a few facts about the messages they sent out. I’ve estimated the gender breakdown of the group by randomly sampling 500 tweeters from the 10,000 and handcoding their genders based on their profile photos. According to this method, 57% of the 10,000 most recent Adderall tweets were made by females.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that females use Adderall more than males, however. Perhaps they just tweet about it more. Plus, there are more young women on Twitter than young men (60/40 in favor of females). So it seems gender doesn’t have much to do with it. The most frequently used words in the 10,000 tweets (aside from “Adderall”) are more interesting though. “Finals” appeared the most, aside from everyday words, and was included in just over 9% of the tweets. The second most used, “haters,” is an interesting one because it comes from one particular phrase that has been retweeted hundreds and hundreds of times in the last week or so. It’s this:
As you can see, the tweet originated from @AdderallHadMe, which is a novelty account dedicated soley to tweeting different versions of the “Adderall had me...” phrase. 140,000 people follow the account and, based on a 30-second scroll through them, they appear to be exclusively young, college-age men and women. It’s an odd account and its popularity surprises me. I can’t imagine @CocaineHadMe garnering such a following. It’s not the only one of its kind, either. There’s also @AdderallCliches, which also has 140,000 of the same sort of followers. Oh, and @Adderall_XR, with 55,000.
By refining my search to include only tweets containing the word “Adderall” and “Buy” or “Sell,” I was able to get a more interesting insight into how much the drug is at the forefront of students’ minds right now--at least, the ones on Twitter who are publicly tweeting about it.
The above tweets are literally some of the first that came up in the search results; there’s nothing unique or hard-to-find about them. Thousands of students, maybe even tens of thousands, are asking about buying Adderall on Twitter. Even if many of them are just kidding around, which I’m sure they are, I think the fact that such comments would seem worth tweeting says a lot about the state of Adderall use in America today. It is, quite literally, a joke. It’s just one of many references a student can make that every other student will immediately understand and probably sympathize with (and maybe even favorite or retweet).
Something that is less easy to pass off as kidding around, though, are the photos many students are posting attached to their tweets about Adderall. Below is a collage of some of them. I think they say more about the effects of Adderall and its utter ubiquity in colleges around the country, particularly at this time of year, than any government statistic or search traffic graph. Let’s go in order. First, evidence of Adderall being taken. Then what it results in.
I think that last one about baked goods sums up how totally casual many students are about Adderall. I haven’t looked, but I very much doubt I could find an equivalent photo depicting another Schedule II drug in a similar way. “Cocaine and pastries. I’m such a good pal.”
I’m sure not every person above was taking Adderall illegally, but snorting the drug hints at improper use, to say the least. (Also, taking it with Nutella, which is a Schedule III controlled subtance.)
Twitter users also upload photos of the results of their Adderall-fuelled sessions. I was surprised by how many people described their increased focus becoming misapplied to an activity other than studying, despite their best intentions. Each photo below was attached to a tweet that contained the world “Adderall.”
Again, two words and one phrase come to mind: casual, blasé and “no big deal.” The students who tweeted all of the above are of course only a minority of all college students around the country, and by searching for ‘adderall’, one automatically brings out some of the crazier stuff. But that does appear to be what it is: the visible tip of the Adderall iceberg. Because Adderall really is popular, despite being a dangerous thing to mess with. It’s even working its way into other aspects of popular culture.
I found 25 songs that contain the word ‘adderall’ or ‘addy’ by searching a lyrics database. Here they are:
Three-quarters of the songs above were released in the last three years, which--alongside search trends, forum discussions, tweets, government statistics and good old-fashioned word on the street--further demonstrates the widespread and increasing influence Adderall is having on online and offline youth culture.
What’s the takeaway from all this, apart from the obvious, which is that Adderall is everywhere, despite being serious medicinal business? Here is what one user of the Silk Road subreddit had to say in reply to someone who asked if there might be a market for his spare pills.
I thought that sounded like a pretty comprehensive summary of what Adderall pills are to college students (a study aid) and what they can become if they are abused (a life-ruining drug habit). In fact it made me think back to a question I posed near the start of this article: is Adderall a good guy or a bad guy? I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s neither. It’s actually more like a movie anti-hero. At least, it is to college students who use it without a legitimate prescription. It’s this potent, empowering character that is extremely bad in large quantities and for extended periods, but in the short-term seems like exactly the kind of thing you want on your side and that you can laugh and joke about.
And just like anti-heroes, the older generation is scared of it, while younger people think it’s pretty all right. The difference, of course, is that anti-heroes are mostly fictional and as such can be kept at arm’s length, whereas Adderall is very real and right now in use on every college campus in America, sitting next to sleepless students in libraries, like a Travis Bickle or Scarface study buddy--cool for now, but always harboring the potential to go off the rails and take the unfortunate student down with him.