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Ritalin: Gateway Drug or Safe Prescription?

Prescription Drug Abuse
Ritalin: Gateway Drug or Safe Prescription?

Ritalin: Gateway Drug or Safe Prescription?

Ritalin is a commonly prescribed psychotropic medication, most often given to children to treat the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD and attention deficit disorder, or ADD. The generic name for Ritalin is methylphenidate and it is also prescribed to treat narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder. A psychotropic medication is one that is prescribed for the treatment of psychiatric disorders and that passes from the bloodstream to the brain to act on the central nervous system. Psychotropic drugs have the potential to cause changes in mood, cognition, behaviors, perception, and consciousness. For this reason, they are often abused, misused, and cause addiction.


Ritalin is a psychotropic drug and also a psychostimulant. This means that it improves the brain’s function. Ritalin is given to people with ADHD because it helps the user to focus on one task at a time, listen better, pay attention, and it controls behavior. There are potential dangers associated with taking Ritalin, which are well documented. For instance, there are side effects:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • A tendency to pass out
  • Easy bruising
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Skin rash
  • Weight loss
  • Stomach pain
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness
  • Insomnia

In addition to side effects, there are several possible interactions that can occur between Ritalin and other medications, some of which may be severe. It is possible to have an allergic reaction to methylphenidate and the drug can worsen existing conditions. Those who have an overactive thyroid, glaucoma, high blood pressure, angina, arrhythmia, a congenital heart defect, anxiety, or Tourette’s syndrome should not take Ritalin.

Side effects, interactions, and worsening conditions exist with many prescription medications. Ritalin, however, carries a further risk: it can be habit-forming. Caution is urged for anyone who has a history of substance abuse. Taking Ritalin and ceasing to take it should be done under the care of a physician to avoid addiction.

Does Ritalin lead to drug use?

For many years now, experts and commentators have bemoaned the drugging of children as a way of coping with behavior problems. Many believe that children are given too many prescriptions and that they are prescribed without giving consideration to other possible solutions. The argument is that these prescriptions lead to further drug use as children become used to being under the influence. The controversy has been going on for some time and it always centers on the use of Ritalin.

According to the American Psychological Association, between three and five percent of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Most are prescribed Ritalin, amounting to two million prescriptions written every year. In recent years, reports have surfaced that claim the use of Ritalin is a gateway to further substance abuse. For instance, a study by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley found a relationship between childhood use of psychostimulants like Ritalin and later dependence on tobacco and other stimulants. The conclusion from the study was that either children with behavioral issues learn to self-medicate later in life or that the use of a stimulant like Ritalin makes them susceptible to using other stimulants.

The UC Berkeley study is not the only one to make this finding, however, other professionals disagree with the findings. Other research has concluded that there is either no connection between Ritalin use and later drug abuse or that it actually decreases the odds of using later in life. Many of these professionals conclude that the condition itself, ADD or ADHD, may cause children to use drugs as adults.

A more serious concern, although one with even less evidence to support it, is that Ritalin use leads to cocaine use. Methylphenidate and cocaine have similar chemical structures, they are both stimulants, and the both act on the neurotransmitter, dopamine in the brain. There is not enough evidence to know whether Ritalin use makes a child more likely to use cocaine. However, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, between 10 and 30 percent of cocaine addicts have ADHD.

When to use Ritalin

Because Ritalin is a medication prescribed by doctors, many parents allow their children to take it and assume that it is safe. Prescriptions are restricted for a reason, though, and care should always be taken when using a new medication because of the possible risks. Although there is no evidence that Ritalin is a gateway to further drug abuse, parents should always balance the benefits and the risks of giving their children a medication. Knowledge, consultation with doctors, and careful consideration are the key to treating a child most effectively and safely.


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