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Popping pills to pass exams

Monday 31st October 2016

Performance-enhancing drugs aren't just for athletes. Students around the country will be taking them right now.


“It doesn't make you more intelligent, it just makes you more focused so it’s not an unfair advantage," says one student.

Some people take vitamins, some people knock back energy drinks, some people create a study schedule and some swallow prescription medicines like Ritalin, or as it’s known in New Zealand, Rubifen.

The drug is usually prescribed to people who have ADHD or ADD, and in some cases it can treat narcolepsy. It’s a stimulant that has the potential to make people feel focused, or more on task, which is why you’ll find students across the country are giving it a go to keep their grades up. For a long time, it’s been hailed as a get-out-of-jail-free-card for students on the brink of academic disaster.

Prescription drugs are covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Ritalin & Rubifen both contain the same active ingredient, methylphenidate hydrochloride, which means they’re a class B drug. Under the law it’s possible to receive a sentence of up to three months imprisonment and/or a $500 fine if you’re caught possessing them with no prescription - and if you’re caught supplying you could be looking at 14 years in jail and/or a $1000 fine.

Emily*, a student at the University of Auckland, uses Ritalin for big assignments and exams. She buys the pills off a friend who has a prescription, for $5 each.

“It just comes in handy - that’s the best way to describe it. I think there’s worse things you could be doing than using prescription medication to study,” she says.

“I studied for 14 hours straight using Rubifen. I only attended four out of 48 lectures so I was under a lot of pressure. I watched my lectures at 2.4 times the normal speed to get through them. People were trying to talk to me and I was so focussed I couldn’t process what they were saying.”  

The effects aren’t huge, but it will work. They are stimulant drugs, they keep you awake for longer, and you can, therefore study for longer.

Emily believes that taking Rubifen and messing with your God-given talents isn’t really so bad.

“It doesn't make you more intelligent, it just makes you more focused so it’s not an unfair advantage, it just unlocks your potential and it’s only potential that you already have.”

She’ll be using it to pass her exams this semester.

The side effects of taking Rubifen depend on the amount you take and the frequency of usage. Common side effects include  inability to sleep, or loss of appetite. More severe impacts include addiction, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps.

Associate Professor of Clinical Pharmacy Dr Bruce Russell from Otago University explains how prescription drugs like Rubifen or Ritalin affect the brain.

“It causes the release of neurotransmitters which you use to retain information.The effects aren’t huge, but it will work. They are stimulant drugs, they keep you awake for longer and you can therefore study for longer.”

The overall perception is that any sort of drug is addictive, of course some more than others. The phrase “meth only once” (a play on the "meth - not even once" ad") is used for a reason, and marijuana health promotions usually involved stoned people taking ages to order in the bakery. So what about study drugs?

“If you’re drinking, for example, and you have a glass of wine that’s fine, but if you have two bottles of wine it’s not. The same principles apply - in low doses occasionally it is probably unlikely to do you any harm,” says Dr Bruce Russell.

Dr Russell says it can be a dangerous drug for some. The underlying factor - as with all drugs - is that if you take too much it will kick you.

Arnold*, 20, doesn’t care for the warning labels or risks of Rubifen. He’s twiddling his fingers through his brown hair, feet kicked up on the chair in front of him. Arnold used Rubifen a number of times to study.

He took Rubifen and other drugs during study for his last exams and this year he used it during his laboratory tests. He got a foil packet of pills for $10 and traded durries for Rubifen.

“I felt focussed and on to it. Shit, I did Rubifen in an exam once. I took 30 milligrams, it was a three hour test, I did it in 45 minutes and I got 96 percent in that exam,” he claims.  

Arnold knows he can study perfectly fine when he’s not on drugs. But when Ritalin is cheaper than buying a coffee it’s worth it for him.

“When it comes down to it, if you have a really hard exam coming up and you pay a lot of money to study, why the fuck would you fail? You might as well take Rubifen. You might as well do as much as you can to pass,” he says.

“It’s less study for you and less stress. You shouldn’t have to take prescription drugs to study, but the pressure on students and the amount you pay to be there - that’s why people take study drugs.”

NZUSA president national president Linsey Higgins says there's been an increase in students taking Ritalin to study.
NZUSA president national president Linsey Higgins says there's been an increase in students taking Ritalin to study.

New Zealand Student Association national president Linsey Higgins claims the association has noticed a spike in the number of university students taking Ritalin to maintain their grades and it is a concern.

“For some students it is the only way. If you’re living in Auckland and you’re getting $176 from the government and your rent is $290 a week, you need to work to make up the difference, and you have to achieve at a relatively decent academic level. Sometimes you need help to stay awake. We just shouldn’t have to have a system like this.”

Higgens thinks it’s an issue of student support. She says that prescription drug usage has increased among students, so has the usage of counselling services, and the student suicide rate is rising.

“Students are under too much pressure, they’re forced to not just burn the candle at both ends, but chuck the candle in the fire.”

The first time Kev* took Ritalin, he got the pills off his friend for free.

“It was a big drinking day at the hall I stayed at in Christchurch. I was hung over and took the tablet and there was no temptation to be distracted. I wrote my essay for about three hours non-stop.”

The second time he used it he stayed on Facebook for hours rather than studying. Now he wouldn’t run the risk.

“People want to do well and it’s human nature to try and find a shortcut and do your best with minimal effort.”

*names have been changed to protect identity.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Ritalin/Rubifen is a class C drug and those caught supplying it could face 14 years in prison under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It's actually class B and the maximum prison sentence that comes with that is 14 years. 

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