Drugs designed to enhance academic performance and concentration are readily available to Oxford students, a Cherwell investigation has found.
A survey carried out by Cherwell found that while seven per cent of students who responded had taken a ‘smart drug’, 28% would consider taking these drugs, while over half would deem it cheating. However, only 32% thought academic drugs should be made illegal.
The drugs most common among Oxford students are Modafinil and Ritalin, with students at the same colleges tending to flock towards the same drugs. Whereas Modafinil is not listed under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and is available without legal restrictions in the UK, Ritalin, which is prescribed to children who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), is a Class B drug. Possession without a prescription can therefore lead to a five-year prison sentence, or an unlimited fine. One fourth year finalist, ‘Charlotte’, admitted to taking Modafinil “mainly because I had heard about other people using it and wanted to see whether it would make a big difference to how I worked.”
Student users stressed the benefits of these drugs over caffeinated products such as coffee and Red Bull. Charlotte commented, “Personally, I found it really good. It didn’t really affect my behaviour or how I felt at all; it just meant that when I was reading I concentrated hard instead of going on Facebook every ten minutes.” ‘Peter’, another user of Modafinil, agreed, “I took Modafinil a few days each week last year for a period of about three or four months. It worked well for me, and in a different way to coffee, as unlike with coffee you don’t get jittery. Rather, it increases your ability to focus over a period of time.”
The unpredictable side effects of Modafinil made students unsure as to whether they would recommend it to others. Charlotte said, “One of my friends tried it at the same time and had a totally different reaction: he found it kept him awake all night and made him twitchy, as though he’d drunk twenty cups of coffee. So it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.” The survey also reflected the varying effects of Modafinil. Whilst one student was confident that he would “unreservedly” recommend Modafinil, another commented that Modafinil was only useful for combating tiredness. “[It was] much better than coffee for keeping [me] awake, but the sleep debt does exist and it’s horrendous. Also it didn’t help my concentration at all.” Another anonymous user was hesitant as to whether [s]he would recommend it, commenting that like many other drugs, it caused dehydration.
Weight loss appears to be another possible side effect of the various ‘smart drugs’. ‘Patrick’, a regular user of Modafinil, explained that when taking the drug he became so focused on his work that he simply forgot to eat. Ritalin user ‘Rachel’ also commented that it worked as an appetite suppressant. The ease with which the drugs can be purchased also seems to be a factor in students’ casual attitude towards them. Peter obtained his Modafinil through the internet and remarked that they were “embarrassingly easy to get hold of.”
Charlotte obtained her pills through a friend, who had got them from another acquaintance to whom they had been medically prescribed. However, she also commented upon the ease with which the drugs could be bought without a prescription. She claimed, “There are people in some of the colleges that sell [these drugs]. It’s not hard to get hold of, and if you try hard enough you can get a doctor to prescribe it.”
Furthermore, there are various websites on which customers can ‘shop’ for smart drugs. Cramshop.com, a partner company to studycram.com, promotes the selling of smart drugs under the slogan, “A pill a day = straight A’s.” They also claim that the drugs on their site are “generally safer than taking aspirin – unlike borrowing Adderall or Provigil from your buddy.” Under a section entitled “famous smart drug users”, they include Albert Einstein as taking nicotine, Lewis Carroll as taking mushrooms, and The Beatles as taking LSD.
When asked how they would defend the accusation of cheating levelled at them by over half of students surveyed, the drugs users all responded in a similar way. Charlotte argued, “It’s not like taking steroids in the Olympics, as steroids make you better at sport. These drugs don’t make you any cleverer, they just make you work harder. Loads of people are prescribed sleeping pills during the exam period to help them work better during the day, and I’m not sure it’s very different from that.” Peter said, “Cheating is when you’ve got something that nobody else can get hold of. Given how easy it is to get hold of, I wouldn’t consider it cheating – the only thing to stop someone else taking it is a personal decision.” Rachel agreed, saying, “Ritalin doesn’t make you smarter, it just allows you to fulfil your potential. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be available to the wider public.” However, not all those surveyed were equally open-minded towards ‘smart drugs’.
One first year classicist disagreed with the claims above, arguing, “It is not that these drugs are inherently bad, nor am I saying that they make you ‘cleverer’ – rather, the point is that since they are not all legal, and can affect people in different ways, the level playing field of academic success is destabilised by the minority of users.“Just as in the East German Olympics of 1976, where some East German female swimmers used anabolic steroids [which mimic the effects of testosterone and dihydrotestosterone in the body and can affect fertility], here we have a group of people taking a risk that, however readily available the drugs are, not everyone is willing to take them. Just as the Olympics ought to be a test of what the human body can achieve, so should academic pursuits be a test of what the mind can do without chemical enhancement.”
Another student said, “I have no problem with it from an ethical point of view, but if you really feel you can’t cope, then you probably shouldn’t be here.”Despite their prevalence and the unconcerned attitude of the majority of students regarding the use of ‘smart drugs’, most colleges do not yet seem to have developed a clear policy regarding their usage. Catherine Paxton, Senior Tutor at Merton College, said, “Merton is aware of ‘smart drugs’ and has begun considering the welfare and other issues which they raise. We follow the Proctors’ guidelines on dealing with drug misuse and these would apply if the ‘academic’ drugs were procured illegally. We have no other documented policy currently.”
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford voiced anxieties concerning the use of ‘smart drugs’. She said, “We would strongly advise students against the practise of taking drugs that have not been specifically prescribed to them, as this is dangerous and can be illegal. We would also urge that they report anyone trying to sell them drugs to the police.” She continued, “Students who are struggling to cope personally or academically, or who have any kind of drug problem, will find a range of support at Oxford. They should talk to their tutors, their college welfare officers, OUSU, their GP, or the University Counselling Service.”
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of sources.