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Revealed: Oxford’s addiction to study drugs

According to a Cherwell survey conducted over the past week and which received 662 responses, 15.6 per cent of students have knowingly taken Modafinil or another so-called ‘study drug’ without a prescription while studying at Oxford.

Modafinil is used to treat disorders including narcolepsy and sleep apnea. It is a controlled substance in the US, and can only legally be obtained in the UK if prescribed by a doctor. Other study drugs include Ritalin and Adderall, both of which are used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

All three drugs are associated with enhanced performance when studying or working, and are often abused in order to achieve better results in high-pressure academic environments, like Oxford, Cambridge, or some American universities.

Cherwell’s survey also found that of those who have knowingly taken Modafinil without a prescription, only 11.8 per cent had done so previous to arrival in Oxford. It is unclear the reason behind the spike upon arrival at Oxford, with increased access and greater pressure both possibly factors contributing to the rise in study drug abuse.

A number of students who use study drugs illicitly, our results show, take them sporadically for both exam and work deadlines (43.2 per cent). The next largest segment of study drug users (25.9 per cent) only engage in their use before work deadlines. Study drug usage appears to be either engaged in covertly or only amongst certain populations of the student body, with just over half of respondents (53.2 per cent) answering that they knew other people studying at Oxford who had taken study drugs without a prescription.

The percentage of students at Oxford who have taken study drugs non-medically is roughly in line with similar findings about non-medical study drug use at US universities, with a 2013 National Survey finding that about 15 per cent of college students aged 18-22 have taken Adderall without a prescription.

There are significant risks often associated with study drug abuse, namely addiction and permanently impaired cognitive function. These effects, however, are unlikely to arise as a result of medical use.

Dr Zahid Padamesy, Department of Psychology, told Cherwell that “in fact, some subjects seem to benefit from these drugs, whereas others are actually impaired. The subjects that seem to benefit the most from these drugs are those with relatively poor working memory and attention at baseline. In contrast, for subjects with already excellent working memory and attention skills, these drugs seem to impair task performance.”

Padamesy also highlighted that the long-term effects of study drug abuse remain unclear. Ali Lennon, OUSU VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, made a similar comment, telling Cherwell, “While Modafinil has no particularly harmful short-term effects, we’re not entirely sure what the longterm repercussions are. And in addition to that, stronger smart drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are essentially low-grad amphetamines. For those persons who do not have ADHD and conditions that warrant the use of Ritalin, it can be quite damaging.”

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