Prescription Drugs

Students often underestimate or overlook the health risks of misusing prescription drugs. Misuse is defined as using prescription drugs:

  • Not prescribed to you - it’s against the law and has legal risks and consequences
  • For nonmedical reasons - like using Adderall or Ritalin to improve concentration and/or stay awake to study. 
  • In excess of what has been prescribed by a health care provider - exceeding prescribed dosage can be unsafe.
  • In an unintended manner - oral medications can be dangerous if taken any other way.

Data & Insights

Use Among College Students

Let’s start off with an important reminder. Most students do not misuse prescription drugs. 

  1. About 11% of college students nationally reported using one or more prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them within the last 12 months; same percent reported by Berkeley students in 2019 (NCHA).

  2. Young adults aged 18 to 25 are the population with the highest rate of nonmedical use of prescription medicines, including opioids.1

  3. 7 to 12 percent of college students nationally reported using opioids for nonmedical reasons, while 2 to 3 percent reported moving from using prescription opioids to heroin.2

  4. Prescription drugs are widely available on college campuses for nonmedical use, owing in part to their pharmacologic properties as stimulant drugs.3

  5. National research indicates that full-time college students aged 18 to 22 years old are twice as likely as those who are not full-time students to report using Adderall.4

  6. The majority of emergency room visits involving Adderall (instances of which nearly tripled between 2005 and 2010) also involve alcohol.5

1Brian E. Tapscott and Ty S. Schepis, “Nonmedical Use of Prescription Medications in Young Adults,” Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews 24, no. 3 (December 2013): 597–610.

2 “Opioid Prescribing in College Health,” ACHA Guidelines, October 2016,

3 Amelia M. Arria and Robert L. DuPont, “Nonmedical Prescription Stimulant Use among College Students: Why We Need To Do Something and What We Need To Do,” Journal of Addictive Diseases 29, no. 4 (October 2010): 417–26,

4 Amelia M. Arria, Ph.D. and Robert L. DuPont, M.D., “Nonmedical Use of Adderall among Full-Time College Students: (529792009-001)” (American Psychological Association, 2009),

5 “Stimulant and Study Aid Abuse - Adderall and Concerta Abuse,” AddictionCenter, accessed November 21, 2019,

Prescription Drug Categories and Basics


  • Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. 
  • Prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain - opioids block pain signals between the brain and body. 
  • Commonly prescribed opioids are OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, Morphine. Illicit opioids are known as heroin, non-prescribed fentanyl.
  • Regular opioid use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence. Opioid misuse can lead to addiction, overdose, and death. 



  • Naloxone is an opioid antagonist designed to bind to opioid receptors and reverse/block the effect of any opioids. It can restore normal respiration when breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications. 

  • The most common form of naloxone is Narcan, an easy-to-use intranasal spray. It can be purchased over the counter at most pharmacies. If prescribed by a healthcare provider the cost is covered by most health insurance plans, including SHIP. If you or someone else use opioids, you should have naloxone on hand.

  • Naloxone Instructions Image

    Learn how to save a life using Narcan by these instructions and watching this short Naloxone training video.


  • Stimulants are drugs that engage the central nervous system, causing increased alertness and brain function. Stimulants are also often called amphetamines as many drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Methamphetamine contain amphetamine.

  • Most prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are formulated to counteract the negative effects of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Illicit stimulants, such as meth and cocaine, provide similar effects—though shorter and more intense. 

  • Taking unprescribed Adderall or Ritalin can lead to addiction. 

  • Mixing stimulants with alcohol can leave the user unaware of when they’ve reached their limit. This in turn can result in injury, assault, or even death.


  • Central nervous system depressants include tranquilizers, muscle relaxants and sleep aids.

  • Valium and Xanax are considered tranquilizers. They are benzodiazepines which work to relax muscles and ease anxiety. 

  • Mixing sedatives with alcohol can have dangerous and even lethal consequences, such as rapid onset of dizziness, stumbling, loss of sphincter control, memory loss and potential death.

  • Sedatives are among some of the most prescribed medications in the country and highly addictive.

Harm Reduction

Substance use and misuse exist in our culture. There are practices that are clearly safer than others, including:

  • Clarify reasons for using (e.g. stay awake, relax, change your mood, fall asleep, just plain habit).  

  • Know and use personal and campus resources - what ways other than substances can you use? 

  • Avoid mixing drugs or drugs and alcohol

  • Always read medication warnings and directions. If you have questions ask a doctor or pharmacist.

  • Don’t share medications. Be ready to respond if someone offers or asks you for a prescribed medication. A simple, direct approach is usually the most effective.

  • Keep naloxone on hand if taking opioids, prescribed or not prescribed.

  • Use fentanyl test strips if using drugs not prescribed by a doctor. 

  • Know your source if you choose to use drugs not prescribed by a doctor. 

  • Know signs and steps to take for a possible overdose See table below.

Periodic Screening

Any use of drugs involves some risk - short and/or long term, direct and/or second-hand, for abuse, dependence and addiction.  Some ways to check in regularly include:

Do your own Self Check-Up

Do you:

  • take medication that was never prescribed to you.
  • take more pills than prescribed.
  • take pills more often than prescribed.
  • use any kind of medication with alcohol.
  • feel bad (shaky, depressed, sick) when the effects of the drug wear off.
  • need more of the drug to achieve the same feeling as when you previously used it. 
  • use a drug to make you feel normal, whole, or loved.
  • put a lot of effort into controlling your use.
  • spend a lot of time thinking about getting more drugs and taking them next.

Try a Sober Experiment

Resolve not to use for five weeks. Go about usual daily activities. Put yourself around the drug and people using it. After five weeks: Were you able not to use? Did you struggle not to use?  Were you able to have pleasure without using? Did your mind talk you into using? Did you have problems with boredom, depression or anxiety? 

Schedule a professional “check up” with a UHS Alcohol and Other Drug Specialist

UHS Social Services offers confidential and non-judgmental counseling and consultation about your own use or that of a friend or family member. (510) 642-6074

Prescription Drug Resources

Counseling, Support, and Treatment

    The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) collects information on thousands of state-licensed providers for substance use disorders, addiction, and mental illness. Filter options by treatment type, location, payments, etc.

  • UC Berkeley Collegiate Recovery Program
    The Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) at Cal is a community on campus dedicated to supporting students in their recovery efforts by providing resources for recovery, health & wellness, and academic success. 

  • SoBears
    SoBears is a UC Berkeley RSO (Registered Student Organization) for students currently in recovery for alcohol and drug use, and those interested in recovery. They host weekly substance-free get-togethers and annual bonding retreats for students in recovery.

Education and Advocacy

Signs of Overdose & Steps to Take

Opioids/Painkillers Stimulants Sedatives
Drug Types/Names
  • Oxycontin
  • Vicodin
  • Codeine
  • Percocet
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Ambien
Drug Effects
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Shallow/stopped breathing
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Chronic insomnia
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Slowed brain function
  • Dizziness
  • Amnesia
  • Shallow or stopped breathing
Signs of Overdose
  • Unconscious
  • Breathing/heart slowed or stopped
  • Pale face or clammy skin
  • Vomiting or gurgling noise
  • Blue/purple fingernails or lips
  • High body temperature 
  • Rapid or irregular heart rate
  • Hallucinations and other psychotic features
  • Seizures
  • Unconscious
  • Breathing/heart slowed or stopped
  • Cold skin
  • Blue/purple fingernails or lips
  • Vomiting
Steps to take if you see an Overdose
  1. Call 911

  2. Administer naloxone/narcan if available

  3. Place person on side in recovery position

  4. Monitor and administer 2nd dose of naloxone/narcan after 3 minutes if the person has not been revived

  1. Try to calm them down and de-escalate the situation

  2. Try and manage psychosis, agitation and irregular heartbeat

  3. Try to cool them down

  4. Offer water to prevent dehydration  

*In extreme circumstances call 911 if the person is unable to be calmed down or has a seizure

  1. Call 911 

  2. Ensure the airway is clear

  3. Stay with the person until paramedics arrive

  4. Hospital may treat them with respiratory support, IV fluids, and/or medications to reverse the effects of the overdose

If you or someone you know has experienced an overdose please refer to Overdose - After Hospital Transport for some guidance and support.