The Dopamine Dilemma: Student Perspectives on the Ethics of Study Drugs

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The pressure to achieve academic success makes university students’ stress level subject to the ebbs and flows of their course load. When a seemingly insurmountable work load builds up, the scarcity of time seems to be a student’s kryptonite. During these periods of high stress, students search for study strategies that promise to increase productivity in the short amount of time they have, which for some involves the experimentation or frequent use of “study drugs.” 

The consistent themes in student feedback suggests that those who use stimulants are striving to eliminate inefficiencies in their work schedule, therefore reducing the extent to which they must make trade-offs between sleep, studying, working, partying, or other activities. 

In a 2018 article for The Bull & Bear writers Molly Harris and Tijana Mitrovic detailed various experiences of students with stimulants. In this article, the use of study drugs is described as a symptom of an unhealthy work environment.The intended use for stimulants, including Vyvanse and Adderall, is as medication for people suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). 

Alison, a U0 student diagnosed with ADHD, describes that: “People with ADHD have a greater concentration of dopamine reuptake inhibitors, so the medicine helps bring dopamine up to a normal level.” When someone without ADHD takes this medication, they have a different experience than someone who needs it. Rather than achieving a balanced dopamine synthesis, their dopamine levels exceed that of an average brain. While Andrew*, who does not have ADHD, describes that “The medication made me want to do work, so I sat down and studied 12 hours.” Charlotte, who does have ADHD, says she has a different experience with the medication. “I don’t feel ‘high’ or ‘ultra-productive’ on stimulants,” shared Charlotte. “I just feel able to do the things that I have to do.”

McGill’s drug use policies focus on harm reduction and abstain from judgment of an individual’s drug use. However, the perceived advantage of a heightened focus level induced by study drugs has led some to question if the use of “performance enhancing stimulants” in an academic setting may warrant the addition of an ethical dimension to conversations on the subject.  Both those opposed and unopposed to the association of study drugs with cheating agree that they do not have the capacity to improve intelligence. Where the argument tends to diverge, however, is the extent to which medically induced focus creates an advantage which is “unfair.”

In Maddison’s* perspective, because they cannot alter a person’s thoughts, study drugs do not denote  academic dishonesty. She says: “If someone without ADHD is getting better grades on stimulants, that’s not because they took a magic pill that made them smarter.” She further elaborates that a person’s capacity to achieve success existed before they took medication.

Cassandra* however, describes that one’s ability to focus is so crucial that an unnatural enhancement of it qualifies as an incredible advantage. “People underestimate how much a person’s level of focus can impact the extent to which their intelligence is actually accessible,” she explains. When a person has heightened focus, they are able to utilize their brain power in a way that was not previously possible.

Eva’s* experience using stimulants as a high school student embodies Cassandra’s sentiment. She attributed the focus she achieved, which allowed her to write twenty  pages of an essay in one day by working from 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM with ease, to the 30 mg of Vyvanse she had consumed. “There is no option to take study drugs but maintain that you would be able to produce the same result without them.” Eva says, “If you didn’t think there was an advantage in taking them, you would save your money”. Andrew* feels that even those without ADHD experience varying ranges of focus that are difficult, if not impossible, to alter naturally. “Some people have this born ability to focus like crazy while others don’t. This advantage already exists regardless of the pills.”.


Legitimate usage

Those with ADHD have a unique perspective on the subject, as some suggested that the misuse of their legitimate medication may contribute to many of the myths surrounding ADHD. For them, this medication is not a mere “study drug”. 

Emily*, a student who was diagnosed with ADHD when she was in Grade Six, felt the use of stimulants as “performance enhancers” discredited others’ view on her diagnosis by the occasional comments she gets suggesting she is “lucky” for having a prescription to stimulants. She says, “They don’t realize that when they take it, it has a much different effect on them.” Cassandra, who also takes medication for her ADHD, expressed similar concerns, saying that people taking stimulants when they don’t have ADHD “gives the illusion that people with ADHD don’t actually need it.”

Many of the students ethically unopposed to the use of stimulants compare it to other unhealthy study habits that become popular during crunch times. Students reported that occasionally making trade-offs relating to health and GPA is seen as common practice in university, so the use of stimulants should not be treated as an anomaly.

Andrew* reflected, “People can say it’s an advantage, but it’s not much different than someone who drinks two Red Bulls and stays up all night studying.”. Following suit, one Reddit user describes their decision to use Adderall as a personal trade off: productivity in exchange for possible health risks. In this sense, they believe the price of their drug use is paid for by themselves and only themselves, and is therefore not worthy of moral condemnation. 

Not everyone agrees that the consequences of illegal stimulant use are limited to those consuming them. The academic environment students are subject to is competitive enough without the added element of drugs, explains Jerald*. He feels that, “The more people using drugs to increase their productivity, the more difficult it becomes to stay afloat without participating.” 

As Alex* states, “The ethics behind taking these drugs without ADHD are straightforward and complicated at the same time.” Although the majority of students agree that a clear distinction should be made between athletes using steroids and students using study drugs, the extent to which students believe  academic success hinges on one’s ability to focus remains in dispute. 


*Names have been changed to preserve the interviewees’ anonymity

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