Balancing coursework, a part-time job and a healthy social life can seem like an impossible juggling act and, as a result, some university students are turning to a new wave of smart drugs and cognitive enhancers to cope with the pressures of assignments, homework, tests, group study sessions and exams.
Nootropics, derived from the Greek word Noos for Mind, are supplements, drugs or other substances which improve cognitive function. They improve alertness and memory retention, while also raising energy levels and increasing a person’s ability to stay awake. But there can be significant side effects.
Duncan*, a 22-year-old student, has experimented with a couple of different study drugs.
“I’ve tried Adderall and Modafinil, I’d definitely say Modafinil is my favourite,” he says.
Adderall is a medicine used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting agent used to treat narcolepsy and shift work sleep disorder. Both substances can only be legally supplied by prescription, but it is not illegal to possess or use them.
Duncan says Modafinil prevents him from procrastinating. “It provides a really natural sense of focus, it gives you a drive. You want to study when you use it,” he says.
Robbie, another student, regularly takes Modafinil to help with big workloads. “The first few times I took it, I got this overwhelming sense of wellbeing,” he says. “I felt really healthy, like I could do anything. It’s a smooth kind of alertness.”
Nootropics are becoming increasingly popular. David Taylor, policy and media officer at the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA), says a lot of people take them. “In many cases they’re not coming across any serious long-term harm,” he says.
However Modafinil does have potential side effects, including dizziness, anxiety and wakefulness. Students mostly buy it online for about $2.70 a pill but have no idea of the actual ingredients.
Taylor says buying from the internet makes it harder to treat if things go wrong. “The substances being sold through these online companies – we don’t know the composition, the components involved with them,” he says.
“Subsequently, we don’t know what the harms are through the consumption and use of those substances, which is a worry,” he says.
But this is not deterring some students. Krystal, a university student, gets another form of Modafinil called Waklert online. “I just get it on the internet, it’s pretty easy,” she says.
Robbie also buys Modafinil on the internet online. “Yeah, I get it online. I found some website that sells it really cheap,” he says.
Buying Modafinil without a prescription is alarmingly easy. Duncan says some companies specialise in selling just Modafinil, with different brands and doses. “It ships to Australia in about 10 days, like ordering something from eBay,” he says.
Online Modafinil pharmacies sell pills at a cost of about AUD$2.70 per pill, with free shipping, and most websites allow customers the option of payment via the online currency, Bitcoin.
David Taylor says online Modafinil pharmacies are easy to access. “Regrettably, they’re not strongly monitored,” he said. “There’s quite a robust market for them [modafinil pharmacies] in Europe. In Australia it’s not quite as robust, but it certainly exists,” he said.
For Duncan, the potential dangers of using Modafinil are outweighed by the lure of good grades. “It does have a positive effect on my results, but it’s hard to say if that’s just the Modafinil because I’ve made some lifestyle changes recently too.”
Samuel Andrews, policy and information officer at the New Zealand Drug Foundation, has conducted research with Victoria University in Wellington on the use of study drugs.
Andrews says governments and police couldn’t feasibly shut down all online study drug pharmacies. “Efforts to shut down these sites would only result in temporarily taking them offline, only to be replaced with new and more risky websites,” he says. “Supply control is important but it is not the only thing that should be done, and it can use a large number of resources for only a small impact.”
Like many students, Duncan only uses study drugs at particularly stressful times during the semester. “I try to limit my use to once or twice a week,” he says. “But I know a lot of people who use it every day and say it’s made a massive difference.”
Duncan also described a typical study session on Modafinil. “I normally do it with mates. Everyone’s on the same level, no one is really talking. Normally we get up around 6am, have a big breakfast, then study for a solid 12 hours with food breaks and a couple of 10 minute breaks here and there,” he says.
Krystal prefers all-nighters and uses Waklert to help her stay awake. “I use it the night before something is due to punch it out,” she says. “The other day I got up at 8am then had some around 8pm and rolled through to 9am the next day.”
David Taylor says students should seek medical advice if using study drugs. “You might want to think about seeing your GP,” he says. “You’d need to have a good think about your lifestyle … certainly do get help, rather than just trying to battle through it on your own.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from substance/drug abuse you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
*Some names changed for privacy