OXFORD students have been taking a ‘dangerous’ prescription drug without medical advice to help them concentrate for exams.

Ritalin is usually prescribed for sufferers of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but is being used by undergraduates to increase concentration during study.

A number of Oxford students have admitted to taking the drug, which in people without ADHD is said to improve productivity and focus, to help them through stressful and busy terms.

Health experts have warned that when using Ritalin without appropriate medical advice, students are exposing themselves to serious health risks associated with other amphetamines. Illegal possession carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, while dealing can lead to penalties of up to fourteen years.

One undergraduate who has dealt Ritalin to other students said that there was a market for the drug in Oxford. "There’s a huge demand for it. When people found out that I had it, loads of people came up to me and asked me for it. You feel euphoric and have a complete dedication to what you’re doing," he said.

A second year Exeter student claimed that the drug had helped him cope with the stresses of revision in the run up to end of year exams. "I took it a few days before the exam," he said. "You take it once a day for productivity. I would personally recommend it if you have difficulty concentrating as you can sit there for five hours straight."

He reported feeling no negative side effects. "It doesn’t do anything weird, although you feel a bit tired after," he added.

A Pembroke first year also stated that the drug improved his concentration on his studies. "It was the most productive I’ve ever been. I didn’t notice anything apart from my work and I would definitely take it again if it was freely available."

Many of the students approached said that they had obtained Ritalin from other students.

Dr Chris Kenyon, a practising GP for students at 19 Beaumont Street in Oxford, warned that Ritalin has numerous potential side effects, including difficulty sleeping, stomach aches, headaches and loss of appetite. Less common side effects include palpitations, high blood pressure, pulse changes and even clinical depression.

"The use of such stimulants for exams is something we would not recommend," Dr Kenyon said.

London GP Dr Anna Lindsay said she was concerned that students using any controlled drug without a prescription could be exposing themselves to serious health risks. "This would not at all be recommended for anyone who has not been prescribed it by a specialist, since it treats very specific conditions," she said.

DrugScope, the UK’s leading charity for drugs information and policy, states on its website that the effects of Ritalin categorise it as an amphetamine, along with the class B drug, Speed. "Heavy, regular use often leads to lack of sleep and food and lowers resistance to disease. Many heavy users become very run down and alternate between periods of feeling good and energetic, then feeling depressed and low.

"Delusions, panic attacks, paranoia, a feeling of being ‘wired’ and possibly hallucinations may also follow. Some users experience violent mood swings and can become very aggressive."

The Chief Executive of the ADHD charity Addiss, Andrea Bilbow, believes that the risks associated with taking Ritalin outweigh the potential benefits to students in high pressure situations, such as exam periods. "I cannot stress strongly enough that unless you have a formal diagnosis and Ritalin has been prescribed by a doctor, you should not be taking it," she said. "You don’t know what dosages to take. If you had any complications you wouldn’t know what they were without safeguards".

OUSU President Alan Strickland sought to reassure students that exams are not so important that they should resort to drugs. "Oxford exams can be uniquely stressful and it’s important that the University and colleges ensure proper support is available," he said. "Students can only do their best and fulfilling their potential will not be helped by taking drugs like Ritalin. Why risk long-term health problems to achieve a little more concentration?"

A University spokesman said there was a wide range of support available to students who were struggling to cope with academic pressures. "We would strongly advise students against the practice of taking drugs that have not been specifically prescribed to them as this is dangerous and can be illegal," he said. "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."
Divindy Grant, Oriel JCR’s Welfare Officer, blamed the number of exams facing Oxford students for the popularity of Ritalin at the University. "It’s an issue that needs to be addressed," she said. "I think it’s just because at other universities there’s much more coursework instead of exams all at the end, so there’s less of a problem. Perhaps increasing the amount of time between exams would stop people turning to stimulant drugs during the run up."