In my local paper a few weeks ago, a tragic tale was told by the mother of a college student who had died of alcohol toxicity. Her son had consumed copious amounts of alcohol and simultaneously snorted a stimulant usually prescribed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The story focused on the student’s stimulant abuse, which involved several pills over the course of the night. The mother had no idea how her son obtained the pills, but they had not been legally prescribed. In the story, alcohol abuse seemed to be regarded as a rite of passage for college students, so the full blame was placed on the prescription stimulant.

It quickly dawned on me that by mixing alcohol and a prescription stimulant, a user would not necessarily realize how intoxicated he or she was becoming. Although the alcohol would act as a depressant, the stimulant would probably overcome it, allowing ability user to consume more alcohol before passing out. If the blood alcohol level becomes too high, a stimulant will not prevent the death.

Stimulant pharmaceuticals have long been abused on college campuses, along with benzodiazepines, which are often taken to accelerate the high from alcohol or to facilitate socialization.

According to the Researched Abuse, Diversion and Addiction-Related Surveillance System (RADARS), pain relievers are still the primary prescription drugs abused on college campuses. RADARS conducts a college survey program that asks students about their nonmedical drug use over the past 3 months.

The top reason college students give for using stimulants is to study. This is nothing new, and the sources of these drugs are many. College students can obtain prescriptions for stimulants to manage ADHD, pilfer the drugs from a family member’s legitimate prescription, or obtain them from a friend or dealer.

I believe that part of the problem is the parents of college students. These parents may regularly rely on stimulant drugs, a dependence for which they developed during their own college years.

Alcohol abuse among young people is serious. And when alcohol is combined with a stimulant, benzodiazepine, or pain reliever, the outcome can be fatal.

Alcohol continues to be the most abused substance among all age groups, and in my opinion, it has caused more problems and deaths than all other drugs combined. In my 47 years of law enforcement, I have seen countless examples of how alcohol abuse has caused death and destruction. The damaging effects on innocent victims are unrivaled by those caused by any other drug.

So without the prescription stimulant, would the college student discussed here have died? Likely not. But without alcohol—the socially accepted and legal drug—he wouldn’t have died either. These kinds of drug combinations, or poly drug abuse, account for many unintentional overdose deaths in our country.


Cmdr Burke is commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad.