Dec 11th, 2018, 07:05 PM

Pharma-drama: The AUP gateway drugs

By Carolina Galbiati
Silicon valley's most dangerous cocktail: The cognitive-enhancer business industry has reached our campus grounds. And it's sketchier than you think.

"Depending on whose numbers you believe, the U.S. supplement industry is either a $12 billion or a $37 billion industry. That’s big by any standard. About half of all adults take some kind of vitamin. To date, food and health companies have mostly ruled the market. Now Silicon Valley is getting in on the action with something called nootropics, which could open a whole new market for tech entrepreneurs," Mike Montgomery's piece, Better, Stronger, Faster: Why Nootropics Will Be Big Business In 2016, says. 

A 2 billion dollar industry. Young adults in hyper-competitive academic journeys. Advertisements, blogs, and forums on the efficiency of pharmaceutical pills and how to obtain them. The perfect, lethal mix for any ambitious student. The pharmaceutical craze has already swept most American college and university settings in the United States. In the UK as well, new studies have shown the effects of "study drugs" and their rising popularity throughout universities.  However, when discussing the topic in other countries in Europe and other American Universities, you can immediately notice the lack of information on the use of U.S. prescriptions and pharmaceuticals as study and focus enhancers.

Before focusing on pharmaceutical use in universities around the world, it is crucial to define the term "study drugs" and what does this definition include. The umbrella term for all brain-enhancing study drugs is Nootropics, a term used to define a "particular class of chemicals that give cognitive effects to the human brain", as the drug-dictionary portal SmartDrugsSmart.com states. The top 3 most sold Nootropics are Modafinil, Caffeine, and L-thenanie, according to information developed by Alterna Script, a pharmaceutical and supplement company. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs and "informative" websites that indicate what each pharmaceutical "cures", where false-promotional language like "increase your capabilities" and "boost your brain power" is the norm. The promotion of these pharmaceutical pills is much like the advertisements of many other drugs, however the way these specific drugs work eventually do not benefit the customer as they say they do. 


Image Credit: alternascript.com

In the 2015 UK documentary From Redbull to Ritalin, the studies show a dramatic spike in interest in pharmaceutical drugs like Ritalin, Modafinil and Xanax in 2012, and it continues to increase each year. Between May 2012 and May 2014, the documentary shows a significant increase in U.S. pharmaceutical prescriptions in the UK at an outstanding 85%. Especially from April to June of 2012, also known as exam period, Ritalin prescriptions increased by 98%. What we see here is an increased effort in students in preparing for their exams by looking for these drugs, rather than by using those hours to study more, showing us a change not only in the way UK students look at pharmaceuticals, but rather how they deal with the stress and pressure from over-ambitious and sometimes exhausting expectations from the UK university programs.

From Red Bull, to Ritalin - The rising use of 'study drugs' at UK universities

This year, Netflix released a documentary about the epidemic in the US. Take Your Pills gives an interesting look into the University system and how these supplements have given the easy way into lots of students that don't have the time or focus to produce the amount of work required. Professors, college students, parents of patients and doctors open a debate on what is happening to these young adults, jittery and exhausted by the pressures of wanting it all and trying to keep up impossible standards. Anything they can do to "be skinny, but get good grades, but also go out. Adderall just sews it all up," says Delaney, the first student interviewed in Take Your Pills. Students all over America explain their prescription diagnosis and the phenomenon that made these drugs so popular among over-ambitious college kids. 

Take Your Pills | Official Trailer [HD] ] Netflix

"The problem today isn't that jobs are scarcer or that positions in schools are fewer. It's that we live in a hyper-competitive order, where the competition is not just for arriving, but the competition is never-ending," said Dr. Wendy Brown, a Political theorist at UC Berkley in Take Your Pills.

A lot of mothers start looking into the most prestigious and rigorous schools even before they have their child. They begin by listening to Mozart, doing yoga, and putting the soon-to-be-born kid into a direction of over ambitious and stressful career plans. But not every child has the same talents, creativity, and mental strength to perform to their best of abilities in certain environments. So these children grow up in a very challenging and competitive niche of anxiety and pressure, and the only effective and time-crunching solution the students are left with is popping a cocktail of cognitive-enhancing pills. 

While in this documentary the sources were comfortable enough to be exposed and tell their story, at AUP the issue is less spoken about. It might have to do with the fact that lots of US pharmaceuticals are not sold in France, and prescriptions for such medicine is much more restricted than in the UK, so students at AUP have a hard time admitting to the frequency of their drug intake and usage.

However, through the number of people I spoke to and witnessed smuggling and dealing of drugs on campus, it is evident that the bigger problem is the number of prescriptions versus the number of people who take the drugs. More students consume pharmaceuticals than the students who have prescriptions, leaving no conclusion but a landscape of drug smuggling and trafficking throughout the students.

It was really hard to get people to confess how it worked and whether they took un-prescribed drugs or study-enhancing pills. To grasp the facility through which students obtain and use un-prescribed drugs I had to go undercover and start searching for said drugs.

My first search included Provigil (Modafinil), Xanax and Ritalin. All were dangerously easy to find. Getting a coffee is more difficult and costly than getting yourself a batch of drugs.

I walked in the AMEX at 12 PM, and by 12:10 PM, I had five people around me asking me how much I wanted and of what, all at a ridiculously affordable price. Astonished, I asked how many of them were from the U.S. or had a prescription. It turns out two-thirds of the students who had these drugs were not from the United States and got them off other students with prescriptions. Therefore, the pharmaceutical craze is also affecting the AUP community socially, making prescriptions and pharmaceutical users popular and encouraging other students to get their prescriptions or ask around for these drugs.

After I went to look for more complicated pharmaceutical drugs like Adderall—they are complicated to find because they are more costly, however, they are not less exclusive—Focalin and Concerta. All three are well-known American study drugs and are not sold in France.

It was easier than it looked. I found people with these drugs in school halls, at our local Starbucks and in front of almost every vending machine we have on campus.  Maryam, a senior at AUP, explained the search, saying, "There are lots of students who take these medicines, whether they are prescribed or not. This is because of the power these pills have to keep them focused and help them study and do assignments easily, and fast. They are legal, so there is little anyone can do to stop them."

There are also other dangers to consider, aside from the trafficking and abuse of pharmaceuticals: the short and long-term effects of taking Nootropics are no joke. By enhancing memory capability, increasing the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms and efficiency under great stress, the human brain adapts to surviving on the sole basis of the daily dose of drugs it gets, becoming addicted and less capable of performing normal brain activity without these enhancers. Additionally, there are significant studies on the long term and short term memory loss and brain chemistry alterations. The brain, when addicted to "extra" dosages of energy and stimulants, will adapt to the levels of vitamins, minerals, and performance-enhancers it is being given, naturally equalizing all the chemicals in your brain to keep your brain as stable as it can.

Dr. Emmanuelle Dupont, Psychologist at Hotel Dieu de Paris, explains the addiction, saying, "These drugs are prescribed for people with cognitive problems or malfunctions, so taking these drugs without any actual problems will ultimately lead in deficiencies and mutations of your perfectly healthy brain. The worse is that now students use them out of simple laziness and sometimes recreationally, leading to long-term anxiety, depression, and terrible cerebral deficiences."


Image Credit: Creative Commons/airforcemedicine.af.mil

Unfortunately, the epidemic does not stop at AUP. There are a lot of Parisian universities that have the same problem with students and their use of US pharmaceuticals. At La Sorbonne, precautions are being taken to avoid the popularity of these study drugs from spreading. Giulia, 24, is finishing her diploma at La Sorbonne and she has experienced, for the last two years, the increase in study drug intake.

"It was never a big part of Parisian culture. Europeans are not really fans of pharmaceuticals; we only take them if we are ill. On the contrary, there is a use of synthetic drugs to get through hard, sleepless nights during exams. It is becoming a problem for students and families when an addiction is caused by the amount of workload and stress of a very demanding university," she said. 

She raises a very important factor: addiction. How can we leave the control of drug abuse and trafficking to students, young adults growing up in an unhealthy environment? What does that say of the framework of universities, the competition, and struggle that encourages students to "enhance" their learning abilities? 

The ease and popularity of obtaining and taking study drugs to open up a largely ignored debate on the spread of legal, pharmaceutical drugs and the abuse of them in many universities globally, and its industry, ever-growing since the last decade. More awareness and education on the side effects of this unhealthy lifestyle is needed, as teaching students the danger of these pills and the unethical use of the drugs for academic purposes is essential to achieve a healthier school environment.

However, the abuse of the drugs is a critique to the systems and pressures students go through in order to succeed at school, another self-destructive pattern many kids are put through from a very young age. The most important part of young adult's lives must revolve around health, and the care and safety students need to succeed to the best of their abilities. The idea that these pharmaceuticals perpetuate is the unachievable perfection and maximization of effort on all fronts of student life, ultimately leading us students to unhealthy sleep patterns and stress.