Selling Attention: ​USC's most casual felony

by Hannah Cleaveland / Garnet & Black

*Names have been changed

If Tim*, Zoe* and Charlie* got busted, they’d each face up to five years in prison. They could get slapped with $5,000 fines. The law sees them as drug dealers selling a Schedule II drug, which means it’s on par with cocaine and meth.

But they aren’t holed up in a safe house, surrounded by mountains of cash and packages of drugs. Tim, Zoe and Charlie aren’t worried, partially because Tim, Zoe and Charlie aren’t their real names.

They’re not kingpins. They’re just college kids selling Adderall.


Zoe has had an Adderall prescription for ADHD since she was in kindergarten, and she started selling it when she was in high school. When one of her classmates complained about not having any before final exams, she realized she could make a few bucks off of her close friends. For two or three years in high school, she’d sell it before finals to kids who asked for it.

Tim entertained the idea of getting a prescription of his own, considering how much taking Adderall helped him concentrate, even if he didn’t need it every day.

“I don’t ever really go to the doctor. I’ve been overdue for a checkup for a really long time,” he says. He doesn’t like going to the doctor in the first place, and the thought of going in to ask for a prescription he didn’t need makes him uneasy. “I wouldn’t want to go in there and even try to lie about something like that.” Instead, he gets it from his 17-year-old sister who has a prescription and sells it to him for $3 per pill.

Charlie first bought Adderall when he was a first-year from someone who sold him other drugs at USC. It wasn’t until he took it that first time that he realized he might need a prescription himself.

So, the next time he went to the doctor, he brought up how paying attention to homework was difficult and how he thought he might benefit from an Adderall prescription. A few months later, Charlie was selling his own pills it to a few of his friends.

Charlie’s experience isn’t all that unique. Many people don’t realize they have ADHD until college, when work piles up and newfound freedom makes it easier to get behind. 

And when they realize they might need help, many don’t seek it out, according to Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a non-profit advocacy group.

“Many transitioning students with ADHD choose not to disclose their disability and seek help,” the organization says. “Many high school and transfer students with ADHD who previously did not need help before, may not see a need to access supports when they go to college.”

That means a lot of kids coming to college realize they might need treatment for ADHD, but they don’t go through the proper channels to get help.

And then there are students who have issues such as depression and lack of sleep, which can present symptoms similar to those of ADHD, and end up using Adderall to treat the ADHD they don’t have.

“There are both people who are misusing and shouldn’t be because they have other issues,” says Dr. Kate Flory, a psychology professor at USC whose research focuses on ADHD. “And there are people who are misusing and should have a prescription that would help them.”


Amphetamine use and abuse — using without a prescription — on college campuses comes as no surprise. For years, studies have shown that college students are some of the most likely to abuse “study drugs” such as Adderall and Vyvanse.

A 2012 Journal of American College Health study found that more than 60 percentof students surveyed were offered prescription stimulants in their four years of college. That same study showed that about 90 percent of students who abused these drugs got them from friends, some who had a prescription and some who didn’t.

By the time Zoe graduated last year after four years in a sorority at USC, she knew plenty of people who bought and sold Adderall at USC, especially in Greek life and primarily men. Zoe’s experiences echo the results of the 2012 study, which found that fraternity members were especially likely to use the drugs without a prescription. It estimated that 55 percent of fraternity brothers would use them at some point.

Zoe and Charlie both say they try not to take their own pills every day, which Flory calls a “medication holiday.” And Flory says skipping a few days isn’t unhealthy — stimulants such as Adderall have pretty short half-lives, so they only stay in the body for a few hours at a time. Charlie says he doesn’t usually take it or half of a pill. Zoe “likes to be fun” on the weekend, so she stops taking it when the week’s over.

“But I don’t have, like, pounds and pounds to give to a bunch of people,” Zoe says. And that’s what these three have in common. 

They aren’t big-time dealers — each one sells to a handful of people.

“I know everyone I sell to. It’s not like they’re big drug addicts,” Zoe says.

It’s the same with Tim: 

“I only sell it to my close friends that I see on the regular. Obviously, I don’t think any of them would rat me out.”

And Charlie: 

“I mainly sell to two or three people, and they’re all people who need it to study. It’s mostly one of my friends who really needs to get his own prescription.”

Regardless of how casual students make it out to be, Officer Eric Grabski says USCPD has made arrests for both Adderall possession and distribution on campus in the past. And when it's on a school property — including a college campus — the penalties are much worse. In fact, they double. 

Selling controlled substances within a half-mile of campus could land you in prison for 10 years, earn you $10,000 in fines, or both.


The whole thing is all so laissez-faire that the consequences seem impossible. Besides, students arrested for selling a few pills rarely make the front page or the 11 o’clock news. It’s the giant drug rings and meth labs that catch your eye.

“As long as we don’t start doing things like that, I’m not worried,” Charlie says.

But the punishments are identical. Possessing a Schedule II drug of any kind can land you the same sentence, regardless of which drug you’re selling. And it’s the same thing when it comes to selling — getting caught selling meth and getting caught selling Adderall are in the same category.

None of them are selling Adderall to make a living or put themselves through school. (Zoe says she used the money she made to buy snacks.) They do it because they can get it. For many, if it weren’t so accessible, they probably wouldn’t buy or sell it. If Tim’ssister didn’t have a Vyvanse prescription, he doesn’t think he’d ever take it in the first place. But she does, so he takes advantage of that supply.

“That’s a big part of it — the availability and the price,” Tim says. “If I had to go out and buy it from some sketchy drug dealer for like $8, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Zoe prices her pills at between $3 and $5 a pop. Depending on his mood and how much he has left, Charlie will sell a pill and a half for around $7. Tim often sells his to his friends for $3, the same price he buys it from his sister — he’s not really in it to make a profit.

Besides, he doesn’t sell it to enough people to make too much. To him, he’s helping his friends who ask for it.

But that may not be true. Taking stimulants doesn’t make the user smarter or guarantee better grades. In many cases, it’s just the opposite.

“Research shows use of stimulants without a prescription is associated with poor academic performance,” Flory says. “It certainly is not helping.”

If Tim, Zoe and Charlie stopped selling, USC would have three fewer drug dealers. But each only sells to a few people, and all three of them know scores of others who sell or abuse it.

It wouldn’t be hard to find if they gave it up. “I’m in college,” Charlie says. “I feel like everybody I know knows how to get it or already has it.”