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ADHD drugs become popular, dangerous study solution for students

By Kate Snow, Deirdre Cohen, Sarah Koch, Nina Tyler
Rock Center

For Stephan Perez, attending the prestigious Columbia University was more than just a dream; it was a goal he set his sights on when he was only 13 years old and a goal he willed himself to achieve.

“I enrolled into all A.P. and honors classes.  And that was my vision.  I had only one goal.  I woke up in the morning, it was Columbia.  I went to sleep at night and it was Columbia,” said Perez in an interview set to air Thursday at 10pm/9c on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

The Georgia-bred teenager worked tirelessly over the next few years and even stopped playing sports in order to focus all of his attention on his academics.  His hard work finally paid off when he learned not only had he been accepted to his dream school, he received a Gates Millennium Scholarship that would pay for his tuition expenses.

But his inspirational rise to the top would end in a disastrous fall.  It’s a cautionary tale for driven students and their parents.

Perez entered Columbia and before long began to feel overwhelmed by the pace and workload. But just as he started to adjust, Perez suffered a big emotional blow. His grandmother died. One night after his grandmother’s funeral he was in the library with a friend, studying for midterms and struggling to concentrate.

“I tell him, you know, ‘I can't concentrate.  Like, I just can't do it.’  He said, ‘This is what you need’ and pulls out this pill,” Perez said.

It was an Adderall pill. Adderall is the prescription medication commonly prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but the stimulant has become increasingly popular among ambitious high school and college students looking to focus for extended periods of time and perform better academically. ADHD drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin boost levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, chemicals associated with attention and behavior, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For someone with ADHD, characterized by impulse control difficulties and inattention, the medications are calming. For people without the disorder, the drugs can be dangerous, especially if not monitored by a doctor.

WATCH ROCK CENTER VIDEO: Student says Adderall like an 'academic steroid'

His decision to take Adderall ended up changing his life. That night Perez says he powered through his work and was capable of reading for eight hours nonstop—absorbing all of the information. Before long, he said he asked his friend how he could get his own Adderall prescription.

“He said, "Go to Health Services.  Tell them that you're having trouble studying, focusing.  You're going to meet with a psychologist.  They'll ask you a couple questions.  And you'll get a prescription like that.  They give it out like it's candy." 

Perez says he met with a psychologist on campus and filled out a short questionnaire with questions like ‘were you fidgety as a child?’ Then, he met with a psychiatrist for what he said was no more than 10 minutes. He walked out with a prescription.

In a statement to NBC News, Columbia University said that its student health service uses “…a detailed clinical protocol for evaluation of ADHD and related conditions…” and takes a “…holistic approach toward treatment for ADHD, including short-term counseling…”

But Perez soon experienced negative side-effects from taking Adderall. The drug caused him to have bad mood swings, so when he didn’t need to study he didn’t always take the pills, leaving him with extra pills that he would give away. After a while, Perez began selling his extra pills to students on campus for anywhere from $10 to $30 per pill. 

Perez had no idea at the time that some of those sales had been to an undercover police officer, nor did he know that his life would completely unravel; using Adderall as a study drug would destroy his Ivy League career. 

In 2010, Perez, along with four other students, were arrested in a drug bust on Columbia's campus dubbed Operation Ivy League.  Perez pleaded guilty to selling Adderall and did 300 hours of community service.  He was permitted to take his final exams to complete the first semester of his junior year.

Editor's Note: Click here to watch Kate Snow's full report, 'The Study Drug' from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.