Think Adderall Will Make You Smarter? Think Again.

A new study, pours some cold coffee on the assumption within student communities that ingesting the drug, “Adderall” will make them smarter and  provide a competitive advantage. The article states:

People who take these medications can certainly feel more alert and on top of their game, but there is some doubt about whether or not these agents actually improve neurocognitive performance for people who do not struggle with ADHD in the first place”

Here is what I know anecdotally from talking to law students on this issue:

1. Are there students who have a legitimate medical diagnosis taking the drug? Of course.
2. Are there students who have shopped for a diagnosis to get the drug because they believe it will give them a competitive advantage? Yes.
3. Are there students with no prescription, purchasing the drug on the black market because they believe it will give them a completive advantage? Absolutely. They have told me they are doing it.
4. Do some students resent that others may be misusing the drug for a competitive advantage? Yes. Again, they have told me they do.
5. Are law administrations generally aware of this issue? It is not at the top of the list of concerns, but yes, they are aware
6. Can someone misusing Adderall become addicted with devastating results? You bet. It does not get discussed publicly much but it happens. Adderall addiction is real and it’s serious.

Anecdotally, all one has to do is look through law school message boards or talk to current students and recent grads to get a feel for how prevalent Adderall use is. Empirically, there is some data on the topic.

The study, “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being,” published in the Journal of Legal Education and co-authored by another contributor to The Addicted Lawyer, (David Jaffe), found that 14 percent of students responding reported they had taken a prescribed drug without a prescription within the last 12 months, and 79 percent of those students reported the drug taken as Adderall followed by Adderall XR, and Ritalin.

Here is Ali’s story and observations on Adderall use. Ali is a millennial West Coast attorney not long out of law school. She starts with her bar exam observations.

Ali says:

When I took the bar exam, we were limited as to what we could bring into the testing area. A small zip-lock bag that could hold identification, a pen or two, and individual tablets of medication. A memory that stands out was taking a look around after finally sitting down in the massive convention center exam room and seeing a sea of colors through those zip-lock bags: the unmistakable hues of Adderall, categorized by dosage. Everywhere I looked, the vast majority of those around me had at least a couple, ‘just in case.’

Seeing every exam taker’s personal stash out in the open only served to echo and what was the norm in the law library around finals time: You could walk up to any given study group in the library and it was almost guaranteed that at least one person in the group either had a prescription for Adderall or knew somebody who did and merely bought that person’s pills and shared with the group. Adderall was such a staple of studying in law school that it was easy to forget the fact that all of us who partook without a prescription weren’t only doing so illegally, but were also dosing ourselves with an addictive substance — an unwise choice for the subset of law students already prone to addictive tendencies and substance issues. And while I personally knew a few classmates who had a legitimate ADD diagnosis requiring a prescription for Adderall, those people were the minority.

For me, I survived law school finals during my first two years without ‘needing’ an Adderall prescription of my own. I outlined early and often and also had the self-discipline to stay in the library for long hours studying. When I would bum a few pills from a classmate though, studying seemed to fly by. Adderall made the outlining, note organization, and repeated reviews easy to do, and it made me confident in doing it. Moreover, Adderall is a stimulant, which also made it a perfect sidekick to study groups where we could debate hypotheticals for hours on end.

While initially these side effects were more fortuitous, by 3L year, Adderall was almost mandatory for my study group. Rather than a study aid, the effects of the drug served as our required motivation that once came naturally. By this point, I had secured my own prescription, too. I never took the required test and was never diagnosed with ADD by my longtime family doctor. ‘Just to get me through graduation,’ soon turned into, ‘Just to get me through the bar exam.’

When I returned to the small law firm I clerked at as a newly licensed attorney with a crazily disproportionate workload, I hadn’t gotten legal work completed without the help of Adderall in over a year, and I was convinced I required it in order to stay on top of work. My tolerance had also gone up, which meant I was taking more pills than prescribed and running out of my script early each month. Luckily, the attorney in the office next to mine had his own prescription; we’d often have to pool our resources. Unlike law school though, my workload never got lighter. Like any first-year associate in a litigation setting, the competitive and adversarial atmosphere was intimidating deep down, but taking Adderall always made me appear confident and in control.

In practice, this meant that I attributed a lot of my hard work and success to the fact that I had help in the form of a pill. This had a terrible downside, though. If I forgot my Adderall at home or ran out of pills, I would often find myself staring at my calendar and to-do list seemingly frozen and not knowing where to begin. I didn’t think I could accomplish the work and meet my deadlines without taking a pill. As a person who always has had a stellar work ethic in school, this was an unfamiliar feeling for me, and an undoubtedly unhealthy one at that. After only being in practice for one year, taking Adderall as often as I did had also caused me to lose 25 pounds when I did not have 25 extra pounds on me to lose. Mentally, Adderall wreaked havoc on my natural self-confidence and work ethic. I now looked physically unhealthy as well.

After changing jobs, lowering my dosage, and getting sufficient experience to keep the courtroom jitters away, I was able to wean myself off of the high dosage I was prescribed. To date, I still always keep a script filled, ‘just in case,’ but no longer working in a job environment where my coworkers and direct superiors also used the drug (and its cousin, cocaine) took a lot of my personal focus away from thinking that I needed to be taking Adderall daily to succeed and I am doing well without it.

I know old classmates and coworkers who came out on the other end of the spectrum, though. A prior coworker ended up graduating not just from Adderall to cocaine, but from cocaine to crack. Another classmate is currently in outpatient treatment.

The casual use of Adderall that I was introduced to in school became a much more slippery slope than I had imagined. And while I eventually did call it quits on taking the pill every day, not everybody has been able to do this and the pill itself has been proven to be very addictive.

Anecdotally, I know of quite of few stories of woe related to misusing Adderall including DUI prison time.
The reality is that studies and blogs are not going to change the “Adderall culture” to the extent it exists. “Just Say No” has been a proven failure in that regard on a number of fronts related to drug use. It is incumbent on law schools to take a look at this issue and create a student learning and wellness experience that empowers students to turn to healthy ways to improve their studying and testing experience so they do not feel the pressure to turn to “cognitive enhancing” drugs. That topic is more of a book than a blog and may involve re-valuating the very core of how students are taught and tested.