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'It made me feel superhuman': Cognitive-enhancing drug use on rise in SA

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SPECIAL REPORT: South Australians are increasingly taking and finding easy access to a cognitive-enhancing drug that makes them feel “limitless”, despite it being illegal to obtain or import without a prescription.

 

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Tertiary students and white-collar professionals are among the users of Modafinil – medication prescribed to people with narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorders and sleep apnea.

While some users obtain the drug legally via prescription, others order it illegally through overseas websites without prescription, evading border security efforts to seize and potentially destroy any package sent without one.

Jennifer* said her daily Modafinil habit began when she started working on her Masters thesis.

She illegally purchased 300 tablets of Modafinil for $180 from the now defunct online vendor Modafinilcat.

“I started eating Modafinil once a week, then a few times a week and then every day,” she told InDaily.

“It made me feel superhuman. I could smash out as much work as I wanted.

“If you could take a tablet to get yourself over the finish line and study for nine hours without having to look up, you’d be dumb not to.”

Jennifer said the the drug made her feel “limitless”.

Limitless is a 2011 film about a man who accesses a drug that produces higher rates of mental acuity.

Since its inception, Modafinil has been demonstrated to promote wakefullness, including among U.S armed helicopter pilots.

It made me feel superhuman. I could smash out as much work as I wanted.

David* is an Adelaide lawyer who takes two or three 100 mg tablets of Modafinil a day, who says he experiences little to no side-effects.

“It makes me ready for the day,” he told InDaily.

David said his habit started when a pharmacologist friend recommended that he go to the doctor for a prescription of Modafinil to treat his “sleep apnea”.

David does not have sleep apnea. He also said he didn’t have to undergo any medical examinations to get a prescription of Modafinil from his doctor.

“Modafinil was no trouble to acquire,” he said.

“A whole bunch of my friends are doctors, so I have scripts for Modafinil left right and centre.

“It’s almost encouraged to have a script.”

David said he knows of ten people using the drug. He said five were co-workers, with some working at senior levels.

“It’s not just a junior staff issue,” he said.

“If you get your work done no one is going to ask questions.”

Jennifer told InDaily she doesn’t suffer from narcolepsy, but said she started taking Modafinil to manage her “mammoth” thesis coursework.

“Modafinil feels like you’re on speed, but instead of being chatty you’re super-focused,” said Jennifer.

“When I take it I don’t feel like talking to people. I just eat half (a tablet) and for 12 hours and I’m locked into into whatever I’m doing.

“It’s not going to force you to do the work for you, but it will funnel you with so much focus that you have to do something.

“From what I’m aware of it has had no side effects.”

Modafinil is sold under many names, such as Modagil, Modanil, Mvigil, but the history of the drug stretches back to the 1970s.

It was created by Lafon Laboratories in France as an alternative stimulant to amphetamines, and was deemed a “superior” drug because it did not produce any noticeable side effects.

University of Adelaide pharmacologist Dr Ian Musgrave said Modafinil operates by reducing the removal of neurotransmitter dopamine from the synapses between the nerves in the brain. This induces wakefullness and alertness.

“Multiple studies have shown Modafinil to modestly increase memory and learning in healthy people,” he said.

“Long term effects are not as clear, in particular, it is not clear if long term treatment with Modafinil represents a significant risk in addiction.

“Its use as a cognitive enhancer resolves partly around the increased wakefulness, vigilance and alertness.”

Jennifer said she knows seven people who have taken Modafinil for work or study purposes but claims that neither she or them are addicted.

“There are no withdrawals, really,” she said.

“Obviously, like any drug, people that take too much can wig out.

“I’ve stopped taking it and have been alright. There’s a slight headache here and there but I’m mostly fine.”

The largest online proprietor of Modafinil sells the drug under the pharmaceutical’s other product headings, such as Modalert.

On this website shoppers can illegally purchase 300 Modalert pills for $1.41 each.

Modafinil is not on the Office of Drug Control list of items requiring permission to import or export.

But Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) policy requires prescription medicine ordered online must have a copy of the prescription sent with the order, and it be included with the package sent to Australia.

If an intercepted package has no prescription, Australian Border Force (ABF) will hold it until a prescription is provided, or it is destroyed.

Jennifer said accessing Modafinil was “easy” as it was sent to her home from India in a “discreet” box.

“Because it’s not a controlled substance someone can just mail it to you,” she said.

“There is a chance it’s seized and destroyed, but it doesn’t fall badly back on me. The risk is so low.”

A whole bunch of my friends are doctors, so I have scripts for Modafinil left right and centre. It’s almost encouraged to have a script.

InDaily asked ABF whether it was aware of the pharmaceutical goods being imported illegally. It made no comment but pointed to a list of “prohibited goods” on its webpage.

The TGA said consumers should be warned when buying pharmaceuticals overseas as their production and distribution is not regulated.

TGA also said there are numerous side effects associated with Modafinil use, such as: “potential dependence, Steven’s-Johnson Syndrome (a severe dermatological condition, in rare cases-life threatening), multi-organ hypersensitivity reactions, psychiatric symptoms, suicide related behaviour, manic/bipolar episodes and cardiac risk.”

A 2012 study states that compared to traditional psychostimulants, Modafinil “is known” to be a stimulant with less or no adverse effects.

“Modafinil can be used by anyone, who wishes to work late, stay awake, enhance their cognitive reactions, or brighten their moods” it reads.

The Australian Intelligence Commission released the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program Report in December 2018.

It documented the consumption of 13 commonly abused substances – such as methylamphetamine, amphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, heroin, fentalyl and oxycodone – in wastewater systems to track drug abuse trends.

While pharmaceuticals like oxycodone and fentalyl were examined, nootropics like Modafinil were not monitored.

Dr Melissa Raven from Adelaide University said that although Modafinil should be examined further as it’s a relatively young drug.

“It supposedly has low abuse potential,” said Dr Raven. “But people are doing it.”

“It follows a common pharmaceutical pattern of psychotropic drugs, which are drugs approved for a small range of medical disorders but then after a while suddenly other people are using it for other purposes and people start noticing that it’s being abused.”

Dr Raven said she believed young people may be turning to nootropics to keep up with daily life.

“My perspective is that rather than saying we have to stop people using these drugs in an unauthorised way, my attitude is shock horror that working conditions shouldn’t be this difficult.”

If you or someone you know needs help with alcohol or other drugs go to knowyouroptions.sa.gov.au.

You can also contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Service on 1300 13 13 40.

*Names have been changed.

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