A recent study has revealed that teenagers who use stimulant medication, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate), to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do not face an increased risk of later illicit drug use. The research specifically focused on cocaine and methamphetamine use. The findings indicated that high school seniors who underwent stimulant therapy were no more likely to use cocaine or methamphetamine in young adulthood (ages 19 to 24) compared to their peers who did not receive stimulant therapy.
Lead researcher Sean Esteban McCabe, a professor of nursing and director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking, and Health at the University of Michigan, highlighted that these findings should provide reassurance to parents who worry that ADHD medications may lead their children to use illicit stimulants as they transition into young adulthood and gain independence.
While previous studies have associated ADHD with a higher risk of illicit drug use, the current study offers a counterpoint. However, the research team did discover that teenagers who misuse prescription stimulants have a significantly higher likelihood of using illicit drugs in young adulthood. Moreover, the frequency of prescription stimulant misuse plays a role. Approximately 20% of high school seniors who misused prescription stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall went on to use cocaine or methamphetamine in young adulthood. This percentage increased to 34% among teenagers who misused prescription stimulants 10 or more times.
The study emphasizes the importance of monitoring and safely storing stimulant medications, as well as screening teens for drug use, including the independent use of prescription stimulants. The data for this research was collected from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, which examines drug and alcohol use and attitudes among teens nationwide. The study encompassed more than 5,000 high school seniors from 2005 to 2017.
The authors noted that prescriptions for stimulant medications have significantly increased in the past two decades, with these medications being the most commonly misused controlled substances among teens and young adults. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a tenfold increase in overdose deaths related to stimulants over the past decade, primarily driven by illicit stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine. McCabe emphasized the importance of studying the association between prescription stimulants and illicit stimulant initiation to identify and address drug use before it leads to significant problems.
The study was supported by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was published in JAMA Network Open on July 11, 2023.