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Many More Students Are Abusing Ritalin, DEA Official Testifies

Many more students are using Ritalin, or methylphenidate, to alleviate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But more students are also abusing the drug by popping extra pills or trading the stimulants among classmates who want a fix to stay awake during exams, a top U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official recently told a congressional panel.

"Adolescents don't have to rob a pharmacy, forge a prescription, or visit the local drug dealer to acquire methylphenidate," Terrance Woodworth, the deputy director of the office of diversion control at the DEA, said at a May 16 hearing before the House subcommittee on Early, Childhood, Youth, and Families. "They have little difficulty obtaining it from a friend or classmate at school," he added.

Mr. Woodworth said that while the extent of Ritalin abuse is unknown, anecdotal reports and various surveys reveal that some adolescents are selling their medications to friends and classmates "who are frequently crushing the tablets and snorting the powder like cocaine."

In his testimony, Mr. Woodworth cited high school surveys, poison-control data, and information from the DEA and hospital emergency rooms, which all reveal escalating abuse of the drug.

A national high school survey, Monitoring the Future, reported in 1999 that about 3 percent of all seniors in the United States used Ritalin in the previous year without a doctor's prescription, up from 1 percent five years earlier.

In 1990, methylphenidate was involved in 271 emergency-room visits for 10- to 17- year-olds, though it may not have been the main drug they were taking at the time. By 1998, the drug was involved in 1,727 emergency-room visits. A 1998 survey from Indiana University showed that 7 percent of the 44,000 high school students surveyed reported using Ritalin without a prescription "at least once," and that 2.5 percent took it at least every month.

Mr. Woodworth said that abuse of the drug in the past few years mirrors the rise in prescriptions. From 1991 to 1999, domestic sales of Ritalin increased nearly fivefold, according to DEA records. A government database that tracks prescription information shows that in some districts, 20 percent of the student body receive stimulants for ADHD treatment.

State and federal laws require that controlled substances be handled by licensed professionals, but no such requirements apply in schools. That loophole, says the DEA, allows for its abuse.

Drowsy Children: Teenagers have been the focus of sleep-pattern research for years, but a new study from researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel examines the effects of sleep patterns and sleep disruptions in much younger children.

After studying 140 students in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades over a period of four to five nights, researchers found that older children, the 6th graders, went to sleep later and reported being drowsy more often in the morning.

The later bedtime results in "chronic partial-sleep deprivation and increased daytime sleepiness" in those youngsters—a condition that other research has concluded is prevalent in teenagers.

That finding, the researchers in Israel said, could have implications for schools. "Children who suffer from disrupted sleep or from insufficient sleep have compromised attention skills, poorer concentration, and lower academic achievement," Avi Sadeh, a researcher at Tel Aviv University who participated in the study, said this month via e-mail.

Insufficient sleep is becoming a major developmental and health issue for children, he added, and has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The results of the study were published last week in the journal Developmental Psychology.

"Sleep Patterns and Sleep Disruptions in School-Age Children" is available online at ev363291.html.

—Jessica Portner & Michelle Galley

Vol. 19, Issue 38, Page 8

Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as Health Update
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