PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: NATALIA BALCERZAK

One pill makes you smarter

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University is often seen as a chance to experiment — especially with so-called “study drugs.” But as students continue to push the envelope, they risk developing addictions. Ashley Cochrane reports

We walk around the bar looking for a place to sit. Allan* leads the way up and down the wooden stairs scanning each room, holding his arm up and steady to not spill his beer. He spots a little round table in the back corner of the bar and sits down.

“Today is my day off, so I’m not on anything,” says Allan, a third-year film student at Ryerson.

Allan is routinely on a variety of substances, but he says he mostly uses drugs to help him at work – he doesn’t need them for this interview.

“I started using illegal drugs in high school, but I really started experimenting with them in college,” Allan says, shrugging his shoulders. “Like everybody else.”

University is a culture of curiosity and experimentation. It’s a place where most young adults experience their first sense of freedom and independence. In many cases, this freedom and curiosity is often what leads post-secondary students to become involved with alcohol and drugs.

According to a 2011 Health Canada survey, 21.6 per cent of youth aged 15-24 reported using marijuana in the past year. In addition, 4.8 per cent reported use of illicit drugs like crack cocaine, speed or heroin and 3.2 per cent  admitted to abusing pharmaceutical drugs. That said, for many students, their college years are an opportunity to try new things.

While sipping his stein of beer at the bar table, Allan runs through the list of drugs he typically uses.

It’s a long list. It includes what he calls “recreational” drugs like marijuana, MDMA, cocaine and acid, but Allan’s favourites are a less-known brand of illicit substance called “smart drugs.” Smart drugs, or nootropics as they are scientifically known, are used to enhance brain function.

They are said to improve the brain’s focus, memory, intelligence and motivation by chemically altering the brains supply of enzymes and hormones. These drugs are often used to treat people who suffer from ailments that involve brain cell deterioration (like Alzheimer’s disease) and cognitive function disorders such as ADHD.

“Now that I have a really intense job that requires constant high performance and I go to school full time, my favourite line of drugs is nootropics,” Allan says. “I like to take Dexedrine, Piracetam and mostly modafinil.”

Modafinil is a drug originally designed to combat narcolepsy and other disorders associated with difficulty remaining awake. In the hands of Allan and other students though, modafinil can be used to stay awake for long periods of time – greatly increasing productivity.

“Since I go to work full time and school full time, there is no way I could do both at the rate that I am without it [nootropics],” Allan says.

He leans forward, puts his elbows on the table and takes another sip of beer. He says he’s never been addicted to anything except cigarettes and that he uses these highly potent drugs as “tools for success.” Allan talks about how he used dexedrine, a stimulant, in order to stay awake and finish school projects.

He smiles as he explains that he finished a design project, an essay and a photography project all in one night – scoring straight As.

“My GPA is 3.72 and I broke the store sales record at my work,” Allan says. “This stuff is used all the time to achieve things, especially by students who go to universities in the states.”

These smart drugs are, in many regards, an evolution of popular study drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, which have been used by many university students for years.

According to a 2012 study from Stanford Law School, drugs that were developed to treat attention and sleep disorders are popular among healthy students. They claim these drugs help them study and improve their performance in school. Surveys show that up to 16 per cent of students at American colleges use psychostimulants to help them obtain better marks in school. The numbers vary from campus to campus, some universities having significantly higher numbers than others.

A university student quoted by Matt Lamkin in the Stanford study, described Ritalin and Adderall as “more popular than pot” at her Harvard University campus.

Another student, who attended Colombia University, said that she didn’t think she could keep her 3.9 average without using stimulants.

“On a five-day work week I take 30, 40 pills a week… and that’s a standard dosage, man,” Allan says, nodding his head to reassure me that this dosage was, in fact, a normal one.

Modafinil may be familiar to some students as the real-life basis for the drug portrayed in the movie Limitless. Allan calls it complete brain enhancement and describes the improvement of focus and energy on it as “dramatic and insane.” Though Allan speaks highly of the drug, there are no long-term studies on possible side effects of prolonged use of modafinil, and he recognizes that he’s taking a risk.

“We joke that we call our place the drug den,” Allan’s roommate, Kent*, says during a separate interview.

Kent, also a Ryerson student, describes their apartment, telling me about their trippy lights and a baby alien poster that sometimes creeps him out at night.

Unlike Allan, Kent’s goto vice is marijuana. He explains that it gets him thinking in different ways and sometimes helps him see things from alternate perspectives.

“I think [for] me, as an individual, drugs haven’t been prohibiting or distracting in any way [with school],” says Kent. “I’ll use them recreationally and to have a good time, not for anything else.”

Both Kent and Allan stress that they do not use drugs to escape problems or leave reality, which is, they say, the difference between being addicted to a substance and using a substance often.

Allan buys 90 pills of modafinil a month – enough for him to take two pills a day. He says he can take up to six pills of Piracetam with two pills of codeine a day, four pills of MDMA, two hits of LSD and up to a gram of cocaine.

But even though Allan admits to taking up to 40 unprescribed pills a week, he says he is not an addict.

“If you’re trying to hide something or run away from something then it’s the drug that has the power, not you, and that’s addiction,” Allan explains. “I am using this as a tool, not a saviour.” The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as, “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

A friend of Allan’s spent all his OSAP funding on a bunch of ketamine and is now on academic probation. Allan shakes his head.

“This guy goes to school high on K [ketamine], who does that?” Allan says. “That will get you nowhere. It’s all about moderation.”

He says he uses drugs as a tool to succeed in work and school, claiming that if he did not have them, he would not crave them.

He adds that he uses psychedelics on the weekends to party, but insists he isn’t addicted. On his days off from school, work or parties, he takes nothing and wants nothing, he says. He has no need for them.

Stephanie Cassin, a psychology professor at Ryerson who focuses on behavioural addictions, says there is more than one type of addiction. People can be physiologically addicted to a substance, meaning one’s body is dependent on the drug to function.

They can also be psychologically addicted to a substance, meaning one has a feeling or sense that they are unable to function without it.

“I think anything that we feel like we need in order to function potentially can be problematic, whether our body really, really depends on it or not,” Cassin says.

She says that students can be especially prone to psychological addictions.

Kent and Allan both suggest that trying drugs would be a good idea for students. Kent believes people can use them to better understand others as well as themselves. Allan thinks it can be useful as a tool for success for students who work and go to school full time. But while the roommates recommend students experiment with these substances, they also warn to do it sparingly.

“If you aren’t smart about it, it can be addicting,” Kent says.

Allan explains how he gets shipments of drugs from places that are not easily accessible in order to moderate his usage. Instead of buying from inside circles of friends he orders them from a site called Silk Road, where substances are shipped from places like India and take about three weeks to arrive. This means that he will receive a set amount of pills each month and, therefore, cannot abuse his moderated dosage.

“Maybe the addiction comes through not the drug, but how it makes me achieve,” Allan admits shortly before we leave the bar. “So I would say yes, I am addicted. I am addicted to the success that it brings me.”

*names have been changed to protect anonymity

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