Is Adderall the New Xanax? Why So Much Buzz About Adderall?

Eighty-eight percent of the world’s legal amphetamine supply is produced in US, and over-worked college students, celebrities, and sports stars seem to be taking to the drug with increasing regularity. It doesn’t seem like too long ago that Xanax was the nation’s drug of choice, but it looks like a new prescription drug has entered the scene. Prescribed legally for ADHD and narcolepsy, Adderall is one of the most addictive medicines that doctors can prescribe, with 30 to 40 percent of those who take it abusing it at least once. It’s a Schedule II Controlled Substance, but despite the additional constraints that have been placed on prescribing, it is still widely abused.

What is Adderall?

Adderall is basically a mixture of four different amphetamine salts. Its effects, like most drugs of abuse, depend on its interaction with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is an important part of the brain’s “reward” system, which creates a sense of euphoria, increases alertness, and improves focus. Adderall boosts the levels of dopamine in the brain, working very much like Ritalin, another similar drug. The main difference between the two is that Adderall’s effects come on and taper off more gradually and last longer as well. Although this helps to reduce the risk of addiction, amphetamines of any type are basically the same as the street drug “speed.”

Is Adderall Abuse Becoming More Common?

Estimating the prevalence of drug abuse is always somewhat problematic, particularly if that drug is prescribed legally. The University of Michigan’s annual “Monitoring the Future” study looks specifically at teenagers, but gives an overall impression of drug trends across the country. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of high school seniors abusing Adderall has risen from 5.4 percent to 7.6 percent, which equates to a 40 percent rise. There is a huge increase amongst seniors, but a slight decline for 10th graders and no difference for 8th graders. Abuse of Ritalin hasn’t increased, with the study only reporting 2.6 percent of seniors using it in the preceding year. Adderall seems to be rapidly rising in popularity.

Academic Steroids

Another piece of research showed that college students aged 18 to 22 are twice as likely to abuse Adderall as their non-student counterparts. Adderall has a reputation as a “study drug,” allowing people to stay awake for excessive periods of time and develop a “tunnel-vision” like focus. This effect is arguably one of the major driving forces in the increased consumption of Adderall for non-medical purposes, as students may feel under pressure to perform academically. They have been called “academic steroids,” and the fact that their use is fairly widespread may create a competitive atmosphere. Just like you wouldn’t want to run the 100m against an opponent ramped up on steroids, standing out academically seems much more difficult when your peers are using an artificial study aid.

The ADHD Problem

ADHD is also notoriously difficult to diagnose. Whilst it would be difficult to conclusively say that doctors prescribe too readily, the lack of a clearly defined diagnostic test for the most common condition the drug is used to treat opens the door to lax prescribing. Likewise, faking symptoms is much easier without a diagnostic test. A CDC report revealed that between 1998 and 2009, the number of 5 to 17 year olds diagnosed with ADHD rose from 7 to 9 percent, representing almost five million total diagnoses in 2009. This doesn’t necessarily imply that doctors are diagnosing and prescribing too readily, but an increase of around 28 percent is quite dramatic.


Late last year, there was also a spate of NFL stars running into trouble because they were using Adderall. Like the college students, they reportedly use the drug because it helps them stay focused and keeps on top of everything going on in each play. Succeeding in football requires more than just physical prowess, so it is being used as a performance-enhancing drug. This is potentially linked to college, with the widespread academic use of Adderall contributing to it being taken up by college football players.

A Sociological Symptom?

Although amphetamines have a high potential for addiction, the use of Adderall appears to revolve more around the perceived benefits of the effects of the drug. It’s being used as a method of self-improvement, be it acing an exam or picking out the perfect pass in the closing stages of an important game. It could be argued that our society places a lot of pressure on athletes, academics, and success in general, and this leads a number of people down the path to addiction. However, this has always been true, and although things may be getting more difficult, the drug’s popularity will wane. As more and more people learn about the risks that come with amphetamine abuse, the drug will lose its mystique.

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