Ritalin, Adderall and their ilk are Schedule II controlled substances - the same as cocaine and methamphetamine - but they are widely available on college campuses, thanks to the ADHD diagnosis craze that made prescriptions easy to get and prevalent starting in the 1990s.

As a result, a lot of students are abusing the drugs. How many? 17 percent of all college students, according to a recent literature review. 

Some caution is warranted in that. Observational studies and surveys do not make for very good science, so doing a meta-analysis of a lot of studies does not lend them results more power, the way they might in science. University of South Carolina psychology major Kari Benson teamed up with associate professor Kate Flory, of the Parenting and Family Research Center, Kathryn Humphreys of Tulane University School of Medicine, and Steve Lee of UCLA to tackle the difficult problem of standardizing and pooling data from 30 studies which claimed misuse estimates from 2 to 43 percent.

The most common reason for abuse was to improve academic performance, though results on that are anecdotal. A minority of students just wanted to be able to stay awake and drink longer. 

Unsurprisingly, the most common source of stimulant drugs was friends, meaning there's an informal network of students sharing Schedule II controlled substances on most college campuses. Each individual in the network carries legal risks for trafficking - someone has a prescription so possession is not a concern - along with the remote chance that someone truly reckless could harm themselves with recreational abuse of the drugs.

Benson and Flory are using the meta-analysis and the results of a student survey, which involved more than a thousand Carolina students, to examine specific characteristics that are associated with misuse of the drugs. They hope that will help identify students for intervention programs on college campuses.

"That's something we're hoping to do here," says Flory. "We have a substance abuse prevention and education office, and they have a group that's focused on prescription medications. We've pulled together an interdisciplinary group of researchers here at USC to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which would enable us to actually do an intervention on campus."

Because it is well-known that universities can't get protect their students unless the federal government writes them a check first.

Published in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review