Global Drug Survey
Students using Ritalin as a party stimulant and study aid need to be aware that recreational use could be as harmful as methamphetamine, an expert says.
The class B drug is prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but has become popular among young people looking to get a competitive edge from Ritalin's "methamphetamine-like" effects.
There were 136,000 prescriptions issued for Ritalin and its equivalents, whose active ingredient is methylphenidate, in the year to last June.
This year, and for the first time in New Zealand, Fairfax Media is partnering with the Global Drug Survey to help create the largest snapshot of our drug and alcohol use and to see how we compare with the rest of the world.
Figures on non-medical use of Ritalin are scarce, but a former University of Otago student, 23, said groups of classmates took Ritalin, booking out study rooms for intense cramming sessions in the library in the days before exams
She took Ritalin before sitting three-hour exams in her second year of university, hoping the drug would give her extra focus.
"I took it ... alongside my solitary cigarette about 45 minutes beforehand. I had a bit of a routine going."
Her grades remained steady when she stopped taking the 20-milligram Ritalin tablets, bought for $5.
"It was a psychological boost more than anything," she said.
"I felt like it was useful at the time, but if I'd had sugar and been told it was Ritalin, I'd probably still have focused harder.
"The exams that were going well went well anyway. The ones that weren't didn't go any better than I imagine they would have."
Associate Professor Simon Adamson, of the National Addiction Centre, said increased periods of alertness were likely, but the drug's similarity to methamphetamine meant it had high addiction-forming properties.
"There is the potential that it can slide into something that someone becomes reliant on and it turns into a habit of very much greater proportions," he said.
Massey University illegal-drug researcher Dr Chris Wilkins said non-medical Ritalin users were taking big risks, especially when too much was taken or it was used in the wrong context.
"People sometimes think because it's a legal drug it's safe, even though they acquired it illegally," he said.
"You are actually putting yourself under just as much risk as you would if you were using methamphetamine or ecstasy or any kind of illegal drug."
A former University of Canterbury student, 25, began using Ritalin at university but continues to use it recreationally, often mixing it with alcohol.
She said using Ritalin left her feeling wired and able to stay out longer at a party or event.
"You feel really jittery at the time but really into what you're doing, and you're able to keep going for ages without feeling tired or anything," she said.
However, she suffered debilitating "come-downs" and struggled to recover in the days that followed.
"I hadn't slept all the night before because of it, then couldn't get to sleep all day because I was still so wired, so I was really irritable as well," she said.
"And I couldn't eat. I was really nauseous and just had no appetite whatsoever, and I was sweating heaps, even though I was just lying on the couch."
Adamson said combining a stimulant with a depressant like alcohol meant people could not tell how drunk they were until the effects of the Ritalin wore off.
"The stimulant will mask some of the sedating effects of alcohol, so someone can feel more coherent, yet they can have very poor co-ordination, which can put them at greater risk of thinking, for example, that they are safe to drive when they are not."
The user would become quite sedated when the Ritalin wore off, he said.
"That's when a person can tip over the edge, and there are hospital admissions associated with that profile."
Aggressive behaviour was often seen in users who had combined alcohol and stimulants, Adamson said.
"It brings out the worst in people in that combination," he said. "I would be concerned about someone combining alcohol and Ritalin for that purpose."
The active ingredient in Ritalin is methylphenidate hydrochloride, a central nervous system stimulant. Some possible side-effects of taking the drug include:
❏ feeling nervous.
❏ Restlessness or inability to sleep.
❏ Dry mouth.
❏ Mood changes such as depression or irritability.
❏ Blurred vision or problems focusing the eyes.
❏ Hair loss.
❏ Joint pain.
❏ Excessive sweating.
❏ Feeling jittery.
- Fairfax Media