Attention-deficit drugs popular on black market

She had no idea she had a popular party drug on hand.

To her, the vial of prescription pills she'd once been given to treat attention deficit disorder were just leftovers, until a friend from New York called to ask if she'd mail out a few -- just for fun.

The woman, a 29-year-old San Diego resident, didn't do it. But she and her friends were intrigued.

"We said, 'We should just try it. It could be fun,"' says the woman who told how they partied on the drug once this summer and again in September.

In this case, the stimulant of choice was Adderall, an amphetamine. Others use methylphenidate, another attention-deficit drug more widely known by one of its brand names: Ritalin.

Whatever the type, authorities are concerned about ADD drug abuse.

Some unprescribed users are adults. But experts say many are young people -- a good number of them grade schoolers, who get the drugs from peers being treated for ADD.

"They've got pretty easy access to it," says Steve Walton, a detective with the Calgary Police Service in Canada and author of the book "First Response Guide to Street Drugs."

Cocaine-like rush

Users often crush the pills and snort them to get a cocaine-like rush.

Walton says he's also found youth who frequent the rave dance-party scene "stacking" the drug Ecstasy with Ritalin to try and prolong their high. He calls the practice "alarming."

Reports of ADD stimulant abuse continue to surface in this country, too. They include the case of two rural teens arrested in January for stealing $9,700 worth of drugs, including Ritalin and amphetamines, from a pharmacy in tiny Lacon, Ill.

In March, 11 sixth-graders in Scituate, R.I., were suspended for buying and selling prescription drugs, including Adderall and Concerta, a newer form of methylphenidate.

Surveys of young people -- from Massachusetts to the Midwest -- also have documented the trend.

One of them, published in this month's Psychology in the Schools journal, focussed on 651 students, ages 11 to 18, from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Researchers found that more than a third of students who took attention-deficit medication said they'd been asked to sell or trade their drugs. And more than half of students who weren't prescribed the medication said they knew students who gave away or sold their medication.

"I've been trying to tell anyone who will listen," says William Frankenberger, study co-author and a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "People don't realize what these drugs are -- and that the similarities between them and cocaine are much greater than the differences."

Officials at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration say abuse of prescription stimulants became more common in the last five years, as production of Ritalin increased and other drugs were introduced into the marketplace.

But some, including doctors, wonder if new "time-release" versions of the drugs are slowing the abuse.

They include Concerta, taken just once a day -- so an ADD child doesn't have to bring the drugs to school. Time-release versions are also more difficult to crush and, thus, snort, says Dr. Timothy Wilens, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor.

DEAnot convinced

A national survey released in September by the General Accounting Office found that only 8 percent of principals said stimulant drugs were abused or stolen in their schools in the 2000-2001 school year. Most of those said they knew of only one incident.

But Terrance Woodworth, deputy director of the DEA's diversion control office, isn't convinced that abuse is down.

In fact, he thinks the age range is expanding -- even as makers of some of the drugs, including Ritalin, have launched their own education campaigns to try to curb misuse.

"The kids who were abusing in junior high and high school are now in college," Woodworth says. That has caused some colleges, including the University of Wisconsin, to tighten prescription-writing procedures for such drugs as Ritalin, which some students call "Vitamin R" and use to help them pull all-nighters.

Although alcohol abuse remains a much worse and visible problem, students on the Madison campus can only get one prescription per month -- and only enough pills for that month, says Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, clinical director of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Health Services.

Keep medicine locked up

At Harvard, Wilens advises his patients, especially students, to "keep their medications locked away in clandestine places so that strays don't steal it from them."

He says those on the medication aren't usually the abusers. In fact, a study he presented last month at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conference found that those who were treated with prescription stimulants were half as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.

For her part, the 29-year-old from San Diego says she has no plans to party with Adderall again.

"I just try to remember how I felt after," she says, recounting that a feeling of "utmost clarity" turned to insomnia and left her "crashed out and overdone" the following day.

Then in the next breath, she admits she's kept 20 pills.

"I don't know why," she says. "Maybe for a special occasion."

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