Warnings as students get 'smart drugs' online

This article is more than 12 months old

Students turn to pills for boost ahead of exams

In the US thriller film Limitless, a struggling writer whose career is heading nowhere pops a mysterious drug that unlocks his untapped cognitive abilities, turning him into a financial genius and literary whiz.

Hoping to gain a similar edge, some people here, from secondary school students to undergraduates, are using "smart drugs" to help with cramming.

Students as young as 16 are buying and taking drugs such as modafinil to get better exam grades.

And they are finding it easier to obtain such drugs, getting them on online platforms like Carousell and messaging services like Telegram.

Some sellers offer free samples, delivery services and even back-to-school promotions.

A pack of 10 pills may cost between $15 and $35, depending on the potency.

Such drugs - used to treat disorders such as excessive daytime sleepiness or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - are touted to boost concentration, decision-making and memory power in healthy people.

One website selling modafinil - used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders - targets Singapore students "who are mercilessly subjected to an intense education curriculum".

A seller said his youngest buyer is in Sec 4.

Pills containing modafinil are marketed under names such as Modalert and Modvigil.

One pill can keep a person awake for several hours.

Other cognitive enhancers include methylphenidate, which is marketed under formulations such as Ritalin and used to treat those with ADHD and narcolepsy.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist, said more students who do not have clinical conditions that require treatment are approaching doctors for the drugs.


Some studies have shown that these cognitive enhancers can produce mental gains, but they can also cause side effects such as heart problems, severe rashes, breathing difficulties and insomnia.

Dr Thomas Lee of The Resilienz Clinic has encountered a handful of students over the years who admitted storing up methylphenidate for exams.

Methylphenidate is listed as a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Dr Lee said: "They pretended they were taking the medication daily but secretly accumulated the supply to take during exams and tests. Sometimes, they shared them with or supplied them to their friends."

In a joint reply, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and the Central Narcotics Bureau said medication containing methylphenidate needs to be registered with the HSA, and can be prescribed only by a registered medical practitioner.

"Prior approval from HSA is required for each import of therapeutic products that contain controlled drugs," they added.

Anyone who imports or supplies, without prior approval, a health product with methylphenidate may be jailed for up to two years and fined up to $50,000.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, urged students to refrain from resorting to these drugs.

"It is smarter to stick to strategies such as having enough sleep, healthy food, lots of physical exercise and adopting good study skills - strategies that are all tested and backed by research," she said.