In May, John Sexton addressed the issue of collegiate prescription drug abuse both nationwide and at NYU. “Over 7% of college students nationally report misuse of pain medication… almost 1 in 10,” Sexton said “NYU is below those numbers. We put in enormous effort on this issue; we are very, very careful about prescribing pain medication.”
While I hate to jump on the “Let’s Criticize JSex!” bandwagon, I have to admit that the claim that less than 7% of NYU’s nearly 23,000 undergraduates has ever misused prescription painkillers sounds less like the truth and more like what you tell your mom so she’ll stop telling you to “be safe” when you hang up the phone. Similarly, the Student Health Center’s claim that a mere one in ten college students have taken so-called “study drugs” without a prescription seems to be too idealized at a university where “Adderall” is championed as a synonym for “4.0.”
Thanks to the Internet, I was able to survey 236 NYU students about their respective dalliances with prescription pills. Disclaimer: I collected this data by asking for survey participants through Twitter and open Facebook groups. But although the biases of a self-selected survey group may lead to some inaccuracies, 44% of those surveyed reported they had misused prescription medications at least once, and 85% said they knew at least one person who had done the same. In other words, our student group reported drastically higher prescription drug misuse than NYU reported.
Contrary to John Sexton’s proclamation of “constant vigilance” regarding misuse of painkillers at NYU, 26% of those who completed the survey reported using a painkiller like Vicodin, Percocet, or Oxycontin recreationally. 47% of all students surveyed said they knew at least one student at NYU who misused a narcotic pain medication.
Perhaps less surprisingly, 35% said they had abused a study-enhancing stimulant at least once during their time at NYU. Our survey would also suggest that even the students who don’t partake in amphetamine-fueled all-nighters themselves are acquainted with the practice, for 82% of those surveyed knew someone at NYU who had abused a study-enhancing stimulant.
Part of what’s fueling this is the growing accessibility of pills. According to survey data, 68% of those who have abused prescription drugs have received them from some very generous friends, and 31% have received them from family members (thanks, Mom!).
“For the vast majority of recreational users of prescription drugs, their first encounter with these substances does not occur in college. It begins in our homes,” said Board of Directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy member and Gallatin junior Alec Foster. “Once [parents] share a surplus painkiller left over from an old injury, it shows youth that it is acceptable to self-medicate which may turn into recreational use and possibly addiction.”
Throughout the years, I have acquired enough prescriptions to wallpaper the interior of NYU Student Health Center. Every pill has been prescribed with cause: the Adderall to combat ADHD, the Vicodin to numb the arthritis, and the Flexeril to fight something called “Snapping Hip Syndrome.” But in a world filled with people like me who have this disorder and that syndrome—all of which require medications—it’s not surprising that there’s enough pills to go around: a Pillsgiving of sorts.
“I started selling [my prescribed] Adderall my freshman year…I found out that I could sell it [for] $1/ mg, and I started selling it to people I knew enough to trust,” said CAS sophomore Toby*. “It is very easy to do. There is high demand among students and it is a relatively low-risk way to earn a little bit of money.”
A perceived “low risk” seems to be a common reason why students are turning to prescription drugs to get their kicks. There’s this notion that street drugs like heroin are dangerous and only for troubled miscreants, but because Vicodin is regulated, it’s perfectly safe; however, fatal overdoses of prescription painkillers have quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, and now outnumber heroin and cocaine-related overdoses. In New York City in particular, these painkiller-related deaths are happening within stable, middle-class families, a demographic somehow ignored when we form our stereotypes of drug addiction.
“I think people at NYU take the risks of prescription drugs one hundred percent less seriously than they do other drugs. I did at least. I saw [them] on the same level of marijuana,” said Gallatin sophomore Jan* of her summer romance with prescribed opioids. “I looked to my prescription medication as a coping mechanism…my doctor said, ‘don’t become an addict.’”
Today’s media likes to pin the epithet of “addict” to “Law and Order”-type urchins and suspicious men in bulging trench coats. However, addiction does not discriminate, and can affect anyone. As a person who lost her father to an opioid overdose, I have seen first hand how even those with the sharpest minds and brightest futures can have their lives crippled—and possibly ended—at the hands of drug addiction. Particularly for college students, pill addictions can end a life before it really ever gets a chance to start.
“I didn’t really realize I was addicted [to painkillers] until my doctors started to wean me off them a month after I had knee surgery,” said LSP sophomore Angela*. “I resisted stopping for a couple weeks, and told my doctor that the pain was still there. Even though I now realize it probably wasn’t, then I felt like could still feel it if being pain-free meant going without the drugs…While I was weaning myself off, I was weak, shaky, and on edge for weeks.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think the solution to this problem is as quick and easy as “constant vigilance.” Our culture has become inherently substance-fueled, and it’s not really a secret that sometimes drugs can be fun. Real change—the kind that can save lives—cannot be wholly achieved until that constant vigilance is paired with both comprehensive education about the dangers of prescription drugs and a shift away from the “street drugs bad, prescription drugs good” doctrine.
“Universities need to be proactive in educating their students on both the short and long term consequences of a dependence on drugs not prescribed to them,” said Foster when asked about a remedy. His organization, Students for Sensible Drug Policy will be holding a forum on prescription drug use on November 14 at 8:30 in Kimmel 808.
“If used correctly, these substances allow many of our peers to function with a sense of normalcy that most of us take for granted. With a consistent stream of new students and the fact that over 80% of overdoses are unintentional, drug abuse is a problem that cannot be solved by relying on education alone.”