Carol was just another knobby-kneed pupil at an elite Richmond private school when she first tried amphetamines.
Using speed was life changing for her, then 12 years old, but not in the negative or tragic way assumed in tales of youth using hard drugs. Instead, her daily use of Adderall has since helped Carol (Style changed her name to protect her identity) — and millions of children and adults like her — overcome attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
“It's kind of like being a flake without being a ditz,” she says, now in her 20s, a well-adjusted graduate student and primary-school teacher who still takes her daily dose of amphetamines.
But back in her younger days, Carol had no problem sharing her Adderall or Ritalin prescription with her high-school friends. “I would just share them,” she says.
Her friends often would partake of her prescription on Friday nights, enjoying the euphoric high of parent-approved speed as a party aid.
So news of last week's bust of 16 pupils at Tuckahoe and Byrd middle schools in Henrico County came as no surprise to Carol, even as local news, law enforcement and school officials seemed very much atwitter at the shock of adolescent abuse of prescription drugs.
It was also no shock to Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Schrad, who's also a former staff lawyer with the State Crime Commission, studied pharmacological drug abuse while she was with the Virginia State Police a decade ago.
“When we first began looking at the number of prescription drugs and the types of prescription drugs being used inappropriately, Ritalin and Adderall were on the top 10 list — and that was even more than 15 years ago,” she says. “If you talk to anybody that's in a vice unit, they'll tell you the kinds of drugs that are being trafficked on the streets — they're seeing a large number of prescription drugs.”
For kids, the temptation to abuse the drug may hold less of a taboo: “It's so widely prescribed,” Schrad says, “it's treated no differently than if you were giving someone a cold medication.”
Carol's prescription for Adderall is one of 43 million prescriptions written for the drug since 1996 when it first hit the market.
And because the drug is condoned by parents and doctors, Carol says, among many children it holds a less negative connotation than traditional adolescent drugs such as marijuana.
“I'd say every type of high school and college student has used it except maybe the choir kids,” Carol says, suggesting that over-diagnosis of attention deficit and hyperactivity and over-prescription of drugs is the primary culprit for black-market Adderall and Ritalin. “You'd be surprised by the number of people and the type of people who use it.”
For a child with a prescription, there's a financial incentive to sell some of those pills too. Adderall fetches as much as a $1 per milligram, with an average pill dosage of 25 milligrams. That's easy math, even for a middle-schooler with problems paying attention in class.
As of December, Ritalin was selling for about $7 a pill, according to the Virginia State Police.
“I can tell you that prescription drug abuse is now larger than illegal drug abuse in terms of money, in terms of value and in terms of law enforcement,” says Sgt. John Welch with the state police drug-diversion unit.
Welch expresses surprise that abuse among secondary-school students might be so common — though perhaps it's no surprise given kids' close relationships to the most common abusers. “Middle-aged females are the biggest abusers,” he says.
In other words: mom.
Schrad's study more than a decade ago didn't so much explore Ritalin or Adderall as 21st-century versions of mother's little helper, but it did reveal a pattern of doctor shopping — seeking sympathetic doctors with loose prescription standards.
Also not envisioned is that kids might do their own version of shopping for prescriptions.
“Some kids just got tested and could fake their way through the test to get the prescription,” says Elizabeth (whose name Style also changed), one of Carol's high-school friends. She relied on Carol's prescription for her weekend recreational high, but says there were at least four other students in her class who used their prescription for profit. “It always came into play at big parties.”
None of this surprises Carolyn Myers, a Chesterfield-based independent educational consultant who specializes in testing for learning disabilities.
“Kids with attention problems have such impulsivity,” Myers says, referring to lessened inhibitions common in ADHD kids that might make them more susceptible to temptations to abuse their medication — or to share with other kids.
She says parents need to take responsibility for their children's access to the prescription: “It needs to be locked up.”
Or perhaps not given at all in some cases, Myers says, noting that a lack of concentration in class may have roots in an underlying learning disability rather than in attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
“That needs to be addressed or tested for,” she says. “Unfortunately our schools aren't doing all the testing anymore because it's too expensive.”
Too often a disruptive child is assumed to have attention-deficit disorder, Myers says, and parents are quick to seek the doctor-approved pharmaceutical solution. “I even have parents say, ‘I gave this kid my other kid’s drug myself because they think that will work with them, too.'”
That's a risky parenting strategy, she says, and one that threatens collateral damage — as with the Henrico bust. According to Henrico police, only one of the pupils charged with distribution or possession of the Schedule II drug had a prescription for it.
Ted Oshman, whose New York-based law firm is involved in multistate litigation related to Adderall and other frequently abused drugs, says parental responsibility is only one weak area he's seen through his research. He calls it a top-down problem.
“We live in a society where there's a pill to cure everything,” he says. “Do you think as many parents would ask for the drug if they had to say, ‘Could you give my kid some amphetamines’?” S