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It appears study drugs aren’t uncommon at Bristol University, so what does this say about the stresses of life on campus?

Illustration: Joe Watson-Price

“Study drug dealers have never come across like normal drug dealers. The other day I was meeting this girl to buy some Modafinil and it was broad daylight. It doesn’t feel like drugs at all.” Sian is a student from Bristol, currently in her final year Sussex University.

The Cable is chatting to Jack and Sian, two Bristol-born students currently at Brighton and Sussex universities respectively. Exam season is coming up and the pair are talking about their use of the so-called ‘study drugs’ Modafinil and Ritalin. These are weak stimulants usually prescribed for narcolepsy and ADHD, but have become popular among university students for their ability to increase focus, allowing them to work for hours on end.

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Just what a student needs?

“It really gets you in the zone and without it, it can be a struggle to do as much,” says Sian. She is talking about Modafinil, a legal narcolepsy medication that reduces the drawbacks of sleep deprivation and has been found to enhance people’s attention span.

Sian regularly takes Modafinil and ADHD medication Ritalin to improve productivity at uni: “I suffer from anxiety which, coupled with the stress of deadlines, can make me freeze up and not do anything. I started taking Modafinil just to give me a push and get me going.”

She started using it from her first year but now only uses it for big assignments. “You’ll take it and you’ll be there for hours typing and look at the clock and six hours have gone. I wouldn’t ever use it for revision or even an exam, it’s only to get stuff done.”

“You’re just in the zone and when you come out of it you can be like ‘what the fuck did I just write?”

“There’s an element of placebo to it. If I’ve got a big assignment and I know I’ve only got a few days, then it’s reassuring to know that you’ve got a few Modafinil in your bag,” she adds. “But when you’re done with your work and you get good grades back, it’s quite self-assuring because you do feel like it was you that did it and not the drug.”

“Modafinil doesn’t make you more intelligent or creative,” says Jack, a 21-year-old business student from Redland, currently in his second year at Brighton University.

“I am so bad at studying, not because I don’t care, it’s just ADHD and my brain just puts it off until I have to do it and Modafinil makes that easier and I save so much time because of it.”

“When I was writing an essay on Modafinil I was just locked away in a room and not thinking about what was coming out. You’re just in the zone and when you come out of it you can be like ‘what the fuck did I just write?”

Those who’ve been through the higher education system can sympathise with Jack and Sian: Late night cramming, high word counts and short deadlines are all part of an undergrad’s life. The prospect of even starting a piece of work can be daunting enough, and perhaps these drugs are students trying to reach their full potential instead of drowning in a world they haven’t adapted to yet.

Ritalin is a class B drug, which means it’s illegal without a prescription and possession can land you up to five years in prison. But Modafinil currently sits in a legal grey area, where it is technically legal to buy without a prescription, but not to sell. While a quick internet search will link you to sites that can sell you Modafinil for roughly £2 a pill – purchases through the dark net or dealers are also an option for students.

“I have a Modafinil dealer and a Ritalin dealer and both of them are prescribed,” says Sian. She adds that prices have gone up recently – £2 for Ritalin and sometimes £5 for Modafinil, and that study drug dealers have never come across like normal dealers.

It remains unclear how common study drug use is. A 2018 report by drugs charity drugs charity Release and the National Union of Students (NUS) found that one in 10 students surveyed had taken study drugs. However, a recent investigation by University of Bristol TV (UBTV) found that nearly a third of Bristol University students surveyed had taken drugs to aid their study. The survey of 650 students found that Modafinil was the most common, followed by Ritalin. While most students had found it helpful for studying, almost half also experienced negative symptoms, such as anxiety, headaches and insomnia.

Practical solution or symptom of something else

“As first year progressed, I became less and less motivated.” says Michael*, a final year student at Bristol University. His experimentation with recreational drugs ended up mixing with his reluctance to study.

“I would skip uni for weeks just because I didn’t feel like going. Before long I had missed so many lectures that I was questioning why the fuck I was at uni. I felt that I needed to change something.”

“It definitely doesn’t make you any brainier”

“One day I tried speed with a friend and from there everything changed for me. I have no trouble with coming up with ideas but I do have trouble with finding the drive to do it. When you can give yourself truckloads of artificial energy you can do crazy things like revise 20 lectures in one day.

His house would do marathon study sessions, where everyone was working together and taking speed. “My longest binge was a week straight without sleep – I got a lot done but then after I slept for 30 hours straight. I took speed going into my first exam and found that I just couldn’t concentrate – all the knowledge was there, I just couldn’t access it.”

That was all in his first and second year. “Now I’m in third year, I’ve cut out every other drug besides Modafinil because it’s so helpful and doesn’t affect my sleep. I’m confident about my exams and I’m looking forward to a calmer life after.”

Downsides and drawbacks

No serious side effects or health concerns have been raised about Modafinil, but there is currently no data on long-term effects.

While everyone we spoke to thought they benefited from the drug, Will, a 23-year-old masters student from Fishponds studying social care at Saltford, tells us that it had played a part in a bad episode: “I had a mini mental breakdown in the library during my undergrad,” he says. “It was right before a really important hand-in, and I was just sat in the library pulling my hair out with my head going a million miles an hour. I’m the type of person that leaves everything until the last minute and I put the experience down mainly to the stress I caused myself but the Modafinil definitely didn’t help.”

“It definitely doesn’t make you any brainier,” he adds.

Modafinil and Ritalin have no clear addictive properties, but everyone we spoke to agreed that after they had experience studying while on Modafinil, it was hard to think of trying to go back to studying without.

Jack says: “After having taken it when I’ve had an important piece of work to do, you feel a bit like if you were sober you’d be distracted and wish you had some Modafinil. If I didn’t do it I’d be sat taking hours to psych myself up to start.”

The lack of data relating to the possible consequences study drugs can have on your health has led experts to advise users to use the drug sparingly.

Sam de Neijs, a drug tester with the drug safety charity The Loop says: “Usual concerns around stimulants are lack of sleep, which catches up with people, and more calories being burned pulling an all nighter than just going to bed.”

“The best way to learn is to build up sections of knowledge on top of one another rather than cramming everything in. If the goal is purely to recall as much information as possible during an exam, stay up normally during the day after lacking sleep, or just getting as much information onto a page when making notes, then I’m sure Modafinil could be seen as viable. The real risk with buying study drugs online or even second hand is not knowing their true contents which could have unknown consequences.”

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Study drugs have had lots of coverage in recent years, but everyone we spoke too agreed that there is too much media hysteria around the issue when compared to what they really are.

They also said there was little concern from their universities about them. Chloe Traies, a spokesperson for the University of Bristol told the Cable: “We are aware that the use of smart drugs is a growing issue across the UK. At our university, the number of users of these drugs who seek help from our drugs and alcohol support services remains a very small percentage, with just a handful of cases among our 22,000 students.

“Ritalin would fall under our illegal drugs policy unless a student has a prescription. Modafinil, although prescription only, is not illegal so a student taking it would not infringe the university rules. However, if taking Modafinil lead to any misbehaviour or the university became aware that the use of a particular substance was widespread then we would take appropriate action and possibly ban it.”

Both Jack and Sian say they can’t see themselves continuing their study drug habits into the world of work. But despite the supposed prevalence at Bristol University, it would appear the university authorities aren’t too concerned.

*Name has been changed

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