Adderall: Crack or Cure-All?

Adderall prescriptions are at an all-time high. Is this an epidemic?
Five-year-old Johnny, whose treatment with Adderall eased his ADHD symptoms but made him too calm, might be put on Ritalin instead. (Photo: Steve Liss/Getty Images)
Apr 6, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

In 2011, 21-year-old Laura Sitter, a sophomore at the New School’s Eugene Lang College, began taking Adderall with her college roommate, who had a prescription. “We’d take it and go balls to the wall with our work,” she told TakePart. “She was a visual artist, and at the time I had this fantasy I was a filmmaker and would stay up all night editing my projects. I felt super stoked on it, like I was the best artist in the world.”

A few months later, Sitter had her own prescription. But she was never actually diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the condition for which Adderall is most commonly prescribed (narcolepsy is a distant second). “I’ve never been diagnosed with anything,” she said, “but given my general demeanor I probably have it.” Her psychiatrist, it seems, agreed: when she asked him about getting the drug, he wrote her a prescription and advised her to take it “recreationally.”

Adderall prescriptions are at an all-time high. A recent study from Northwestern Univesity found that between 2000 to 2010, the total number of national ADHD cases among children under 18 increased by 66 percent, from 6.2 million to 10.4 million. As those children have grown up to become college students, the drug has become a fixture on campuses across the country, where the pressures of school work and social life has lead to the drug’s abuse. Said one Southern Methodist University student to the Dallas Observer: “Students crush it up and snort it like anything else. I’ve watched people blow it off a table in the library as a quick up before an exam. And, some people do it before going out instead of cocaine because it’s cheaper.”

Like cocaine, Adderall is a schedule two controlled substance, meaning it carries a “black box warning,” the most severe for a prescription medication. Offenders can end up in prison for selling or even giving it away. “Adderall is the mixture of several stimulants. Stimulant medications increase the risk of having a seizure,” warned Dr. Suena Massey, a professor and psychiatrist at George Washington University Medical Center, to PRWeb. “The primary ingredient is amphetamines. It’s the same drug used in methamphetamines, cooked up in meth labs. Amphetamines are very addictive, highly addictive.”

Some critics claim doctors are overprescribing the drug and misdiagnosing ADHD. In February, German researchers published data in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that suggests 16.7 percent of 1,000 psychiatrists diagnosed ADHD in non-ADHD patients. While U.S. doctors are loathe to attribute the findings to misdiagnosis, some acknowledge the cultural differences in treatment. Said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a Johns Hopkins ADHD researcher: “My sense is that ADHD is diagnosed way more here than in France or Egypt or anywhere in between.”

While it’s difficult to find any conclusive studies on the long-term effects of Adderall —it hasn’t been around long enough—adults that began popping the pills as teenagers have come out to sing its praises. Last week, Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia cited the drug as a major factor in his ability to succeed at the major league level. Diagnosed with ADHD in high school, Saltalamacchia was able to win a therapeutic-use exemption from Major League Baseball’s strict drug policy, which bans the stimulant.

“It’s been a significant difference in being able to focus, calling pitches behind the plate, scouting reports, doing my routine,” Saltalamacchia said to WEEI Boston. “It’s been a world of difference...There’s guys who are way worse off than I am. [The exemption is] needed. It’s not a drug people are using to get bigger and stronger. Mentally, we have to use medicine to compete and level the playing field.”

Chaz Johnson, a 30-year-old musician and student at the New School’s Jazz program, agreed. He’s been taking Adderall for nearly ten years, and says that it’s made all the difference in his ability to function normally. “I don’t know what I’d do without it,” said Johnson to TakePart. “I was diagnosed with ADHD ten years ago, and of all the things I’ve tried—Ritalin, Dex [dexedrine], Straterra—Adderall has worked the best with the least side effects. I’m a better me.”

Like any drug, Adderall has the potential to be abused, and it’s not without its scary side effects. When I asked Laura Sitter if she felt any ill effects after a year of use, she nodded enthusiastically. “Truthfully, it worsens my delusions of grandeur,” she says. “It helps with getting shit done, but it’s not great to take when you’re trying to be creative because you think any immediate thought you have is brilliant. It makes me snappy sometimes. I think the worst part is my jaw; it’s constantly in knots.”

Not surprisingly, she makes a point to only use it when she’s really tired or needs to “push something out.” It’s just too intense, she says, to take every day.

“Let’s be real. It’s just a generic form of speed,” Sitter says. “On my prescription bottle it says ‘Amphetamines.’ They’re not even trying to hide anything anymore.”