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Published on 15th March 2017

Why study drugs are taking off

Forget the standard revision tips – a trip to the library, a switched off phone and a beautifully colour coded revision timetable no longer cut it. Students are approaching their study time with the same line as their downtime –by taking drugs.

Pop half a pill and sit down at your books. Eight hours later, you look up. You’ve got a splitting headache, a dry mouth, and you feel pretty nauseous - but boy did you get a lot done.

All thanks to modafinil, the ‘smart drug’ that you can buy online at minimal cost to your wallet and your criminal record. It is not illegal to buy, there’s no need to use bit coin or access the dark web. It’s a quick and easy purchase and your drugs arrive through your door from god knows where within a couple of weeks.

Modafinil is a prescription drug used to treat people with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that effects your sleep cycle. Studies have shown that the drug improves concentration and alertness, allowing you to stay focused for much longer periods than normal.

Users have complained of side effects such as insomnia, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, as well as depression and anxiety. The drug has even been linked to cases of psychosis.

But with places at top universities limited, and the job market for graduates more cut throat than ever before, students today are resorting to any means necessary to get ahead in their studies.

Shelly Asquith, Vice President for Welfare at NUS, said: “Students are under enormous pressure to achieve high grades in exchange for huge debt - and this is leading to some turning to "study drugs".

“Our concerns are that these drugs are often ordered online and students cannot be sure exactly what they are taking. We are also worried that some students may be taking prescribed medication from those who really need it.  We urge all students to fully consider the impact this may have on their own and others wellbeing.”

Asquith also called for a spotlight to be shed on the system that pushes students towards modafinil:

“However, we would also like to see Universities and the Government consider the pressure which rising fees and the marketisation of education is putting on students, and to examine what is driving them to resort to study drugs in the first place.”

Latest studies show that one in five students admit to taking modafinil and Oxford University, renowned for its intense, competitive atmosphere, is in the lead with 25% of their students having taken the drug.

Oxford University said: ‘While we have yet to see truly convincing evidence that the use of cognitive enhancement drugs is a widespread problem at Oxford, we would strongly advise students against taking any drugs that have not been prescribed to them, as this could involve putting their health at risk and may be illegal.

Students who are struggling to cope personally or academically will find a range of support at Oxford.”

In fact, Oxford University Student Union began offering support for this issue in the form of workshops about smart drugs in February, which were for “exploring the reasons why people might start using smart drugs, and suggesting safe and sustainable solutions." (The Telegraph)

Harry Whittle, who studies politics and philosophy Cardiff University, explained why he takes the drug:

“I can study for five, six hours straight on modafinil, whereas without I can only study for an hour or so before needing to switch my focus. I also read and write at a quicker pace.

“It allows me to concentrate on one thing for longer than I would otherwise and to process and react to information a lot quicker.”

But when a healthy student is taking a cognitive enhancer, is it considered cheating? Should this been seen as the same as doping in competitive sport?

Harry doesn’t think so: “As far as I know there weren’t rules relating to my exams prohibiting me from using cognitive enhancers and so it is not unfair.

This is true.  Cardiff University said in a statement that: “Our current procedures do not specifically include the use of performance enhancing drugs such as Modafinil. However, our procedures do allow us to take action against any student who has taken measures considered to have given them an unfair advantage.”

Harry doesn’t believe modafinil is a big leap from what the rest of his course mates are up to: “I’d hope that taking modafinil would give me an advantage, much the same as studying for longer or using caffeine to fit more hours in the day would give me an advantage.

“It’s like using a car instead of walking. We have this stuff available to us to make our lives easier we might as well make use of it.”

Dr Muzaffer Kaser, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University who specialises in pro-cognitive medication, makes the same point about caffeine: “Our perception of cognitive enhancers is skewed because if you take a pill people think differently than if you drink coffee because it’s social acceptable and nobody really questions that.”

Dr Kaser said that “it was important to highlight that there is a lack of knowledge on the long-term effects of modafinil” and that “people are buying it online more and more and there needs to be more regulation”.

Dr Kaser recently attended an event on smart drugs by Edinburgh University Neurological Society where the subject of cheating came up and a “very vibrant discussion” followed.

      The examination board, OCR, said that their rules don’t cover ‘smart drugs’ like modafinil:

     “There are no regulations that set out what medication a student can or can’t take prior to an examination.

       It is not feasible to have such regulations in place: determining who is permitted for medical reasons and who is not permitted to take prescribed medication would be too difficult to administer; policing a regulation i.e. drug tests, would not be possible or appropriate for many reasons and not proportionate.”

       “We can confirm that to date there have been no malpractice cases which involve the use of medication associated with ADHD. In general, if we had any reason to believe a candidate had taken any drug prior to sitting an exam, we would inform the school or college immediately so they could provide the necessary counselling and support”

“The taking of such substances in the belief that they might enhance performance could present risks to physical and mental health and may actually impair academic performance.”

“For me, modafinil is a shortcut” said Harlan Gillespie, a Biomedical Sciences. He explained why instead of going to see his GP about problems with concentration, he buys drugs online:

“It is just easier to prescribe for myself. It takes a lot less time, a lot less effort.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK, the representative organisation for theUK's universities, said: “UK universities take the issue of drug abuse very seriously and would have grave concerns about students taking drugs not prescribed to them by a doctor. Not only is this illegal but it also poses health risks to those students.”

But Harlan believes that the pros outweigh the cons: “There are some minor side effects from taking modafinil but they’re not so drastic that I’d stop my use of it.

“If you take it a lot, say every day for a week, you start to feel quite jittery, quite jumpy. But if you just take it every now and then, just for like random assignment deadlines, there’s isn’t that much of a noticeable effect. It’s quite a subtle drug.”

Harlan also doesn’t see himself at an unfair advantage over other students: “A lot of people drink coffee. I don’t drink coffee.”