Alarm bell rung over fake ADHD meds in schools

Researchers in the US have called for greater attention to be paid to the issue of misuse of medicines used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as counterfeit versions of the drugs become more accessible and dangerous.

Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the characteristics of prescription stimulant misuse among more than 230,000 students at thousands of schools across the US, finding that nonmedical use of prescription drugs ranged from 0 to 25 per cent.

A key finding was that schools with a greater proportion of students taking prescription stimulant-based medicines for ADHD tended to be those that had the highest levels of misuse, and vice versa. The authors suggest that access to the medicines encourages sharing between students, and also creates an environment in which they are purchased from shady online sources.

That’s an alarming finding, say the scientists, given seizures of counterfeit copies of ADHD medicines that on analysis are found to contain other drugs, often painkillers and most commonly the ultra-strong opioid fentanyl – responsible for an epidemic of overdose-related deaths in the US.

It’s also important considering non-medical use of prescription stimulants among teens remains more prevalent than misuse of any other prescription drug, including opioids and benzodiazepines. 

Earlier this year, a Rhode Island man who admitted to possessing approximately 666,000 counterfeit and methamphetamine-laced Adderall pills – which is one of the most common ADHD medicines – was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

“The key takeaway here is not that we need to lessen prescribing of stimulants for students who need them, but that we need better ways to store, monitor, and screen for stimulant access and use among youth to prevent misuse,” said Michigan researcher Sean Esteban McCabe, lead author of the study which is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Secondary schools should assess risk for their own students, rather than relying solely on regional, state, or national results, the researchers advise.

“The drug supply has rapidly changed, and what looks like medications…can contain fentanyl or other potent illicit substances that can result in overdoses. It’s important to raise awareness of these new risks for teens,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which supported the study along with the FDA.

“It’s also essential to provide the necessary resources and education to prevent misuse and support teens during this critical period in their lives when they encounter unique experiences and new stressors.”

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