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    Why Are ADHD Medicines Controlled Substances?

    By Sharon Liao
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD

    If you’re taking medicine for ADHD, what you’re taking likely is a controlled substance. That means that the federal government regulates how the drug is made, prescribed, and dispensed.

    There are also extra security measures to guard against abuse.

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    “This affects the way you get and fill your prescription at the pharmacy,” says Norman P. Tamaka, a consultant pharmacist and health care risk manager.

    But do you know why?

    Controlled Substances: What You Need to Know

    The Controlled Substances Act has been in place since 1970. It governs the making and distribution of medications.

    Medications fall into one of five categories, called “schedules,” based on their safety, risk for abuse, and accepted medical use.

    The majority of ADHD stimulant medications, such as Adderall (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine), fall into the Schedule II category. They're legal, but they’re considered dangerous because of their high risk of abuse and dependence. Other Schedule II drugs include painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin.

    Why Most ADHD Drugs Are Considered Schedule II

    “Like with other stimulants, it’s possible to become dependent on or abuse ADHD medications,” says Lenard Adler, MD, a professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.

    Research suggests a growing number of people without ADHD are taking the drugs illegally. To know why, it’s important to know why the drugs are used for ADHD.

    Although the exact reason for ADHD isn’t known, experts believe brain signal problems -- how different parts communicate with each other -- are part of the cause. Studies show that certain spots, such as the area just behind your forehead, called the prefrontal cortex, are less active for people with ADHD.

    These medications work by stimulating these areas so they receive more signals. So when people who don’t have ADHD take these drugs, they have more activity in the part of their brain that controls behavior and thought.

    “It can make you more alert and increase your concentration and metabolism,” Tomaka says.

    Since even people without ADHD can get the boost from the medications, they take the drugs illegally to try to do better at school or work, or to feel more alert and focused. Abuse of ADHD medication is increasingly common among college students.

    But that’s not the only reason some take it.

    “These stimulants can also cause a feeling of euphoria,” Tomaka says. When crushed and snorted or injected, they can lead to a “high” that’s similar to cocaine. This can lead to a psychological and physical dependence on these ADHD drugs.

    People who become dependent can have withdrawal symptoms like feeling tired, feeling depressed, or having unusual sleep patterns if they stop taking it.

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