Feb. 25, 2003 -- A growing number of young people are snorting Ritalin — a much-lauded drug for hyperactive children — to lose weight, study for exams and in some cases, just to get high, according to some drug experts.
Teens and 20-somethings are the key abusers, and some even go to their doctors and fake symptoms in order to get prescriptions for Ritalin that they subsequently misuse themselves, and even sell to their friends, experts said.
"I'd take six, seven, eight pills at a time," said Jacob Stone, a high school student at Sobriety High, a drug treatment school in Minneapolis, who used to abuse Ritalin. "I'd snort them. Along the way, I knew a couple who would melt them down and shoot them up."
There has been a six-fold increase in emergency room visits associated to Ritalin abuse over the past decade, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which tracks drug abuse data for federal health authorities. There were 271 Ritalin-related emergency room visits in 1990 and 1,478 visits in 2001.
"All the kids know about Ritalin abuse," said Dr. Robert Millman, a psychiatry professor at Cornell University-Weill Medical College in New York. "They know about other kids sharing their pills, and they know about kids snorting it."
Stone began misusing Ritalin after being diagnosed with ADHD as a sixth-grader, and later sold the prescription drug to fellow high school students, charging $5 for three blue 10-milligram pills or one orange 30-milligram pill.
"And the people who were most interested in it were the younger kids who weren't trying to do real drugs," Stone said. "They wanted something that seemed like it was okay to do and that still would give them a good buzz."
Parents Clueless About Misuse
For children with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, medications like Ritalin and another stimulant called Adderall, can be miracle drugs. These stimulants help an estimated 4 million children remain focused on learning, and allows them to get ahead in school.
Abusers of the drug say the high it creates is similar to what can be achieved with cocaine, and that parents are clueless about Ritalin's misuse.
"I know people that stay up for days off Adderall or Ritalin, and it does the same thing as coke," said Abby Neff, another Sobriety High student who abused Ritalin.
The makers of Ritalin, the Novartis Corporation — argue that its product effectively helps millions of children cope with ADHD, and that the medication should only be used as prescribed. The Shire Pharmaceuticals Group which manufactures Adderall, also defends its product when used properly as prescribed. Both companies say their products do not lead to the abuse of illicit drugs.
Many parents have no idea about Ritalin's potential for misuse, said Lynda S. Madison, an associate professor in pediatrics and psychiatry at Creighton University Medical School in Omaha, Neb.
"I have known parents who said they took the Ritalin prescribed for their child themselves, or gave it to their other children, 'just to see if it helps,' " Madison said. Unfortunately, as useful as the medication is for children who truly have ADHD, it often is seen as completely benign and readily accessible."
A high-school student and former abuser agreed that her mom was in the dark about the drug.
"My mom never had an inkling that I was using Ritalin to get high," Wyeth Gibson, a Sobriety High student said.
Fast Rush For Kids in the Know
Statistics show that Gibson is not alone.
A survey conducted of high school students in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that 4 percent of boys and 1 percent of girls had used no-prescription Ritalin during the previous 30 days, said Robert H. DuRant, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. More than 2,000 students were involved in his survey.
The results of Ritalin abuse can be serious.
Last September, 10 students at Antelope Valley High School near Los Angeles were hospitalized for overdosing on Ritalin during school hours. Police arrested a 14-year-old female student who was accused of supplying them.
"I think in some kids, they use Ritalin when they are younger or they chop it up, they snort it," Millman said. "But cocaine would be the grownup's drug. It's more expensive, it's more difficult to get. And in a way the highs are similar. The idea of a drug is you want to get a fast rush. Change the way you feel fairly rapidly."
Watch Prescription Patients
Millman says few doctors are aware of the serious scope of Ritalin abuse on the high school and college level. Children who receive prescriptions should be monitored, however.
"Many of the kids who are diagnosed as ADD are subject to drug abuse patterns," Millman said. "And they have to be watched carefully."
Bernadette Melnyk, an associate dean at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, agreed.
"Ritalin abuse is not only affecting college students, but also children as young as in grade school," Melnyk said. "I predict this problem is going to continue to grow as the incidence of mental health problems continues to climb. "
Worrisome side effects are increased heart rate, hypertension and psychosis, she said. Ritalin can also have ill effects when mixed with decongestants, cocaine and amphetamines, and it may also inhibit liver metabolism.
A College Exam Endurance Booster
One student at Boston University recalled how classmates would use the drug before a night on the town.
"A lot of people snorted it — to sort of keep them awake," the student, who didn't want her name used said. "It was sort of for endurance — for drinking, going out."
Another student at the same school who asked to be interviewed in shadow, was one of several students who spoke of deceiving a doctor in order to obtain a Ritalin prescription.
"Just read a little bit about the symptoms of ADD, and walked in, and pretended I had ADD — just acted like a scatter-brain," he said. "Look around, wouldn't pay attention, stuff like that. And, you know, the doctor bought it."
Other students said they bought Ritalin online by lying about their symptoms.
An Ivy Leage student spoke of a former classmate who would sell the pills he was prescribed.
He would just tell me about, "Oh, I'm going to go pick up my prescription, and then that'll be nice, easy, like, you know, however much money it is," said Anna, a senior at Harvard. "And so then he could make like $600 if he sold each of them for $10."
Experts say that in many cases, Ritalin abuse is a habit that arrives at college after being developed in high school.
Now a recovered addict, Stone found his Ritalin problem led to even more serious drug abuse.
"Keep it locked up, keep it safe, keep it out of the way," Stone said. "Because if your kids aren't using it and abusing it, some of their friends might be."