WHAT IS RITALIN?
Ritalin is the common name for methylphenidate, classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule II narcotic—the same classification as cocaine, morphine and amphetamines.1 It is abused by teens for its stimulant effects.
Even when Ritalin is used as a prescription drug, it may have severe effects including nervousness, insomnia, anorexia, loss of appetite, pulse changes, heart problems and weight loss. The manufacturer says it is a drug of dependency.
In June 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a series of public health advisories warning that Ritalin and drugs like it may cause visual hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and psychotic behavior, as well as aggression or violent behavior.
WHERE IS IT FOUND?
Unfortunately, Ritalin and related “hyperactivity” type drugs can be found almost anywhere. If you are in high school or college, you are likely to have a large supply readily to hand, with “pushers” (your fellow students) eager to make an easy profit from you.
In some schools, as many as 20% of the students take the drug regularly. The Drug Enforcement Administration found that many of these schools had more of these drugs than the neighborhood pharmacy.
Why is it so common? It is all too easy for a “friend” to take some of his little brother’s prescription pills and turn around and sell them at $5 a pop. Or a student eager for a quick fix tells a school nurse he has a “study disorder” and “can’t concentrate.” He gets a prescription and stocks up on the pills for future use, handing out extras to his friends.
While the law forbids unrestricted distribution of these powerful stimulants,1 the sad fact remains that these substances are freely available almost anywhere. Kiddie Cocaine, as it has been called, is handed out like candy.
HOW RITALIN ABUSE STARTS
It seems so simple at first. A student gets a little behind in his studies. An exam comes up and he needs to prepare. He’ll have to stay up late to have even a chance of making the grade. Coffee gives him the jitters, but many of his friends use these pills to give the extra energy they need. Why not? A couple of bucks; one pill; an entire night of study; a feeling of “focus.”
That may be where it starts, but it is very often not where it ends.
Some students are chopping up Ritalin and snorting it like cocaine for faster absorption. “It keeps you awake for hours,” said one.
And just like cocaine or any other stimulant, that nice “up feeling” is inevitably followed by a “crash,” a feeling of fatigue, depression and decreased alertness. One student on Adderall, another stimulant widely abused on college campuses, recounted that a feeling of “utmost clarity” turned into a state of being “crashed out and overdone” the next day. As one user put it, “I usually go into a crash coma afterwards.”
And, of course, the user soon comes to know that this “crashed out” feeling can be relieved with the “help” of another pill that gets him back up again. And so it goes.
Next may be larger doses, or snorting it for a bigger rush. Tolerance increases, so one has to use more. In these larger doses, Ritalin can lead to convulsions, headaches and hallucinations. The powerful amphetamine-like substance can even lead to death, as in the many tragic cases of children who have died of heart attacks caused by damage linked to the drug.
WHAT DOES RITALIN LOOK LIKE? AND OTHER FACTS
Ritalin comes in small pills, about the size and shape of aspirin tablets, with the word “Ciba” (the manufacturer’s name) stamped on it. The 5 mg tablets are pale yellow, 10 mg tablets are pale green, and the 20 mg tablets are both white and pale yellow.
It is described as a central nervous system stimulant. However, even its manufacturer, in the drug’s package insert, admits that no one really knows how it affects the human body: “The mode of action in man is not completely understood.”
Abusers grind the tablets into a powder and snort it. The drug is water-soluble, making it easy to convert into a liquid which can be injected.
As noted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, “pharmaceutical products diverted from legitimate channels are the only sources of methylphenidate available for abuse.” In other words, every tablet of the drug that is abused, either in its original form or ground into a powder or dissolved with water, originated from the manufacturer. None of it is manufactured on the streets.
POOR MAN’S COCAINE
Ritalin is easy to get, and cheap. Taken from someone’s prescription, stolen from a sibling or obtained by a fraudulent prescription, these tablets are then broadly sold. The price runs from a dollar or two in school to $20 per pill on the black market.
The comparison of Ritalin to cocaine is not just a slogan. Ritalin is chemically similar to cocaine. When injected as a liquid, it sends that “jolt” that addicts crave so much.
In 2000, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) revealed the results of studies on both animals and humans who were given cocaine and Ritalin. The test subjects could not tell the difference. The DEA concluded that, “They produce effects that are nearly identical.”
SCOPE OF RITALIN ABUSE
Abuse of prescription drugs such as Ritalin is increasing.
By 2006, nearly 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs, including Ritalin—more than the number who abused cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants combined. That 7 million was just 3.8 million in 2000—an 80% increase in only six years.
In 2007, 3.8% of twelfth graders reported having used Ritalin without a prescription at least once in the past year.
A major factor contributing to the abuse is the huge increase in the number of prescriptions written for Ritalin and other stimulants.
In the US, the number of stimulant prescriptions soared from around 5 million in 1991 to nearly 35 million in 2007.
In 2004, methylphenidate (Ritalin) was involved in an estimated 3,601 hospital emergency department visits, compared to 271 in 1990.
From 1990 to 2000, 186 deaths in the US were linked to Ritalin. The risk is highest for those who snort large amounts of the drug.
Since 1995, it has ranked on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of “most-stolen” medications.
THE VICIOUS EFFECTS OF PRESCRIPTION STIMULANTS
This amphetamine-like substance causes the same types of effects on the body as other forms of speed—loss of appetite, insomnia, increased heart rate. The abuse of this drug in larger doses, especially through injection or snorting, puts an even greater strain on the body. The stress on the heart can be fatal.
Take the case of a teenager—a long-term user of Ritalin—who collapsed one day while skateboarding. Dead of a heart attack.
An injection of Ritalin has an additional, horrible effect on the body. While the chemical compound methylphenidate dissolves completely in water, the tablets also contain tiny particles of insoluble fillers. These solid materials block the small blood vessels when injected into the blood stream, causing serious damage to the lungs and to the eyes.
Aside from the physical impact, there are also severe emotional conditions caused by even short-term use of this drug. Hallucinations and psychotic behavior are not uncommon.
A researcher in Texas found that Ritalin use may heighten the danger of cancer. This study found every one of a dozen children treated with methylphenidate experienced genetic abnormalities associated with an increased risk of cancer.
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
- Dilation of pupils
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Bizarre, erratic, sometimes violent behavior
- Hallucinations, hyperexcitability, irritability
- Panic and psychosis
- Convulsions, seizures and death from high doses
- Permanent damage to blood vessels of heart and brain, high blood pressure leading to heart attacks, strokes and death
- Liver, kidney and lung damage
- Destruction of tissues in nose if sniffed
- Respiratory (breathing) problems if smoked
- Infectious diseases and abscesses if injected
- Malnutrition, weight loss
- Disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion
- Strong psychological dependence
- Damage to the brain including strokes and possibly epilepsy