Was Tom Cruise Right?

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CBS
This article was written by Jenny A. Gold.
"Do you know what Adderall is? Do you know Ritalin? Do you know now that Ritalin is a street drug? Do you understand that?" Tom Cruise's now infamous rant on the Today Show has been the brunt of many jokes, but when it comes to Adderall and Ritalin, two prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD, Mr. Cruise may not be so far off.

Adderall and Ritalin have in fact become "street drugs" at America's colleges and universities, where prescription stimulants often replace coffee and CliffsNotes as the study aids for today's college students.

"It's very much like coffee, but it's a little bit more intense," says a Brown University student who has an Adderall prescription and who requested that her name be withheld. She reports regularly selling her medication to other students, most of whom wanted it to help them focus on their schoolwork.

"People wanted it so often. People would pay almost anything," she said. Her asking price was up to five dollars a pill. "I sold a lot more than I took, that's for sure," she said, "It was like a bartering thing, I had something people wanted and they had something I wanted."

Her experience is not uncommon. "In general, the illicit use of prescription drugs is second only to marijuana in terms of being the most common form of illicit drug use on college campuses," says Dr. Sean Esteban McCabe, interim director of the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center. According to Dr. McCabe's recent survey, 6.9 percent of American college students have taken prescription stimulants illicitly, and up to 25 percent at certain elite universities with high academic pressures and admission standards. More than 50 college newspapers have already published articles describing Adderall abuse on campus.

Unlike many prescription drugs, which may work only for people with a medical condition, Adderall and Ritalin improve the focus of everyone. They work by enhancing Dopamine and Norepinephrine pathways that are involved in attention and are deficient in the brains of patients with ADHD. The drugs are identical in most ways and they're equally popular on campus.

"I heard about somebody who was selling it, and since it was easily accessible, I decided to try it," said a Vassar College student who preferred not to be named. "It helped me concentrate; it helped me motivate to spend a long time working on a project."

Because they are prescribed by physicians, medications like Adderall and Ritalin often seem safer than illicit drugs and may therefore be more attractive to students. "I don't think there's a cachet about doing Adderall the way there is about doing coke," the Vassar student said. "You don't need someone to do a line with you, and it's not social like marijuana."

Rather than taking the pill orally, some students attempt to increase the buzz by crushing it up and snorting it. The Vassar student reported that she knew people who "crushed it and snorted it and went all night together, taking breaks and hanging out."