Is Ritalin a Gateway Drug?

The discussion of gateway drugs is a popular topic for some people who are working to combat worldwide drug problems. The question of how and why certain people begin to use drugs is crucial to reducing drug abuse around the globe, and the gateway drug hypothesis is one possible explanation. The idea behind the gateway drug hypothesis is that the use of certain legal or comparatively mild illegal drugs makes individuals more likely to proceed to more dangerous drugs or develop a drug addiction. These so-called gateway drugs may not pose too many significant dangers in their own right, but would be both noteworthy and worrisome if they did pave the way for substance abuse.

One drug that has been the focus of recent gateway drug accusations is the stimulant medication Ritalin. This drug is prescribed primarily to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and also to treat narcolepsy. The number of ADHD diagnoses has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly among children and young adults. Currently, approximately 9.5 percent of individuals in the United States between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. As a result, medications like Ritalin have become some of the most frequently prescribed drugs in the world.

Prescription drug abuse is also on the rise, and here the name Ritalin appears again. Stimulants are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs, and can be highly addictive when used incorrectly. So what does this combination of widespread legitimate and illicit use amount to? It certainly sheds light on the darker side of a medication so commonly prescribed in children that it has been nicknamed “vitamin R.” However, these realities of the popular drug do no necessarily lend credence to the idea that Ritalin is a gateway drug.

Does Ritalin Increase the Risk of Substance Abuse?

The evidence that Ritalin may be a gateway drug comes primarily from a single study conducted by the director of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley. This study found that among its participants, larger numbers of the adults who were treated with Ritalin as children went on to use tobacco or other stimulants than those who were not.

The study involved approximately 400 children from the Bay Area of California, and followed their substance use behavior over the course of 26 years. The author of the study, Dr. Nadine Lambert, has proposed two theories that could explain the findings of her study. The first is that children who were treated with ADHD go on to self-medicate with other stimulants in order to feel better. The other theory is that the use of Ritalin makes the brain more susceptible to other stimulant drugs.

Or Does It Lower the Risk?

While the findings of the Berkeley study do have some supporters, many experts have dismissed or countered the results of the research, concluding that there is no clear connection between the prescription use of Ritalin and the use of other drugs, stimulants or otherwise, later in life.

Those who question the validity of the Berkeley study do so for two primary reasons. The first is that the findings, thus far, are unique to that study and have not been duplicated in additional studies. In most cases, scientific studies must be independently corroborated by at least one additional study before the results will become widely accepted. This is to ensure that the study’s creators or participants, or other factors, do not intentionally or unintentionally influence the results of the study.

With studies that span 26 years, independent corroboration is not always forthcoming in a timely manner. However, other experts have questioned the results of the Berkeley study because other research in this field has not just failed to confirm the Ritalin as a gateway drug theory, but has actually produced opposing results.

One such study, published in Pediatrics one year after the Berkeley study was published, found that Ritalin treatment for boys with ADHD reduced their risk of substance abuse later in life. Dr. Joseph Beiderman of Harvard Medical School, who authored the study, postulates that responsible and successful treatment of ADHD as a child makes adults less likely to self-medicate with other substances. In contrast, children who grow to adulthood with unresolved mental health issues may be more likely to experiment with illicit drug use in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms.

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