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Ritalin -- Prescriptions Don't Seem to Matter for Some


WebMD Health News

May 9, 2000 -- High school and college students have taken on a dangerous habit. They're partying with Ritalin prescribed to their peers. And reports are that parents are also popping the drug -- sometimes using their own kids' supplies -- hoping it's the perfect weight-loss, high-energy boost. Experts add that this phenomenon doesn't only occur with Ritalin -- other prescription drugs are being abused as well. Do they realize the risks?

Ritalin is most frequently prescribed for treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is thought to affect as many as 5% of school-aged kids in the U.S. The hallmarks of ADHD are lack of concentration, restlessness, and frequent frustration. The drug has always been controversial. However, recreational use and abuse of Ritalin is a growing trend that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other watchdog groups have noticed.

Recently, 15 middle-school students in the Chicago suburbs were disciplined for selling or abusing the drug. The DEA lists Ritalin as one of its "drugs of concern." As with other controlled, prescription substances, Ritalin has "high potential for abuse ... that may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence," Rogene Waite, a DEA spokesperson, tells WebMD.

A report from the DEA identifies Ritalin as one of the top 10 controlled drugs most frequently reported stolen. It's sold on the street as "Vitamin R" and "R-Ball." In many cities, Ritalin abuse has moved from the club scene and now is available to younger adolescents in other social situations, many of which are billed as "no alcohol" events, Paul Ulrich, a Chicago-based DEA spokesman, tells WebMD.

One national school survey conducted by the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan shows that in 1997, almost 3% of high school seniors were using Ritalin without a doctor's order, up from 1% the previous year. Another survey shows 7% of all Indiana high school students used Ritalin for non-medical reasons, and 2.5% reported using it on at least a monthly basis.

Also, since 1990, there has been a sixfold increase in the number of estimated drug abuse emergency room visits associated with the use of Ritalin, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Like similar drugs, high doses of Ritalin cause rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, nervousness, and insomnia. "In teenagers and adults, it acts more like speed," Jeffrey Bernstein, MD, an emergency room physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital/University of Miami, tells WebMD. "There are also the complications you get from high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, like heart attacks, strokes. There's something called 'amphetamine psychosis' ... people who take it continuously for a long time have hallucinations," he says.

Typical-dosage Ritalin is slow acting, but when many pills are crushed and snorted or injected, the high comes quicker, says Bernstein. Danger comes in two ways -- the drug is psychologically addicting, and injecting the crushed-pill form is "fraught with complications," says Bernstein.

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