A new trend in which students use prescription sleep-suppressing drugs to stay awake for longer studying hours could easily find its way to Malta, sources have told The Malta Independent.
The drug Modafinil has led to fresh controversy in the UK, with reports stating that, as much as a quarter of university students are using the sleep suppressing medicine.
Modafinil is designed to combat narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder. Users include shift workers who have their sleep pattern interrupted. Some militaries even give the drug to their troops, while on lengthy covert missions. But in the UK, and across Europe, students have learnt to use the drug to their advantage, as it helps them stay up till the early hours of the morning to study hard before an exam. Modafinil almost eliminates the need to sleep, with some people even coping with just two hours of sleep a night after ingesting the pills.
The drug, which is approved by the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, is only imported by the government in Malta, and is not available in pharmacies. In Malta, the drug is imported under three different trade names, one of them being Provigil.
A pharmacist who spoke to The Malta Independent said that the process makes it quite difficult for students to acquire the drug through the normal channels. If a person asks a pharmacy for Modafinil products he would be referred to Mater Dei Hospital. Once there, one would have to face one or more consultants, who would then determine if the person qualifies for the drug. And the final decision is taken by an appointed board. So faking a sleeping disorder to get the drugs is almost out of the question.
However, British students have found a way to bypass this problem, and discovered that the drug can be easily purchased online from a vast number of sources. Pharmacists have deemed this practice unsafe, as one could easily be ingesting counterfeit medicine without knowing.
Sources told this newspaper that there is nothing in Maltese law stopping anyone from buying drugs on the internet and importing them, as long as they are for their own personal use.
However, if Maltese students copy their British counterparts, and sell the medicine on the university “black market”, they could end up in trouble if caught, as the law states that no one can sell or distribute medicines without a licence.
So far, it seems that neither the government, nor the University have an official position on the matter. Questions to the Education Ministry and the university yesterday remained unanswered.
The fact is that the use of these drugs in the UK is creating divisions between students. In some British universities, students who opt to study in the traditional, drug-free way, view their colleagues with suspicion. And in some cases accuse them of cheating. This has led some students to demand compulsory drug tests before exams.
Potential health risks
In a 2010 letter to healthcare professionals, the Malta Medicines authority warned against the potential health risks of Provigil. It quoted the European Medicines Agency recommending the restriction of Modafinil containing medicines. The EMA had said that such medicines should only be used to treat sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.
The agency had raised a number of concerns related to psychiatric disorders, skin conditions and even cardiovascular risks. It had also warned about off-label use and the potential for abuse.