At a Rhode Island middle school, half a dozen sixth graders have been charged with drug possession or distribution. Five teenagers at a Florida high school face similar charges.
"They're taking this to get up in the daytime and get their schoolwork done, or just to fit in in the crowd, to be cool," says parent Hilda Cuarrion.
What some kids consider cool is the illicit use of pills that millions of others are given legally--at home by their parents or at school by a nurse. They are medications prescribed for attention deficit disorder. Among the most popular is Ritalin.
"It's a significant problem," says Terry Woodworth of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
One of the DEA's most tightly controlled drugs, Ritalin, has the agency worried since it's easy to get and kids believe it's safe.
"They use it as a party drug," says Woodworth. "They crush it up and snort it. Some of them refer to it as 'kiddie cocaine.'"
With 11 million Ritalin prescriptions given out every year, there's plenty circulating in what has become a schoolyard black market. Students who are prescribed the drug are selling it to their peers for a few dollars a pill.
A recent study in Massachusetts found that of 3,500 high school students almost 13% admitted to using someone else's Ritalin.
Andy Cooney, 18, lives in a lush, quiet suburb of Boston. He was prescribed Ritalin as a child, but started selling his pills in the seventh grade.
"I also started snorting it at that time," says Cooney. "Other kids were doing it and it gave you a little bit of a buzz and allowed you to stay up a little longer."
Although he's now clean, Cooney claims abusing Ritalin set him on an even more dangerous course.
"I ended up doing a lot of stronger amphetamines that brought me down pretty quick, and I don't know if I would have gotten interested in them if I hadn't started using Ritalin," says Cooney.
Woodworth warns that Ritalin, snorted or injected, is not only addictive, but can also be deadly. "You have tremors, palpitations, hypertension. You can even go into convulsions," she says.
The DEA is set to distribute a pamphlet to schools warning about potential Ritalin abuse and recommending tight storage and supervision to stem the problem. One company is developing another safeguard--a skin patch for slow release of the drug.
"You can't take a patch and crush it up and snort it and you can't give it away to somebody after you've had it on your own body. It doesn't work if you try to put it on somebody else's," says William Pelham of the State University of New York in Buffalo.
A patch, however, is at least 2 years away, leaving Ritalin readily available at home and at school.
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