Does Taking Ritalin for ADHD Lead To Cocaine Addiction?


The medication most commonly taken for ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) is Ritalin. About 6 million people in the U.S. currently have a prescription for this drug. Three-quarters of them are children, predominantly male.

Because the drug Ritalin is similar to cocaine in the way it affects the brain, it is considered by some scientists and professionals to be a gateway drug.

A gateway drug is one that can lead to the use of other addictive substances such as cocaine. While Ritalin’s gateway effect may prove to be true, there is currently no hard evidence to confirm this idea.

A Complex Issue

Like any other drug, Ritalin (methylphenidate) can be abused. As many as 30 to 50 percent of adolescents in drug rehab centers report abusing this medication. The popularity is largely because it is inexpensive and available. It is also true that children with ADHD who go untreated are four times more likely to begin abusing drugs.

Those who need Ritalin and use it as prescribed do not experience a high from taking it, nor do they exhibit signs of drug addiction. The question in some minds is whether those who go off Ritalin after reaching adulthood are more prone to begin using cocaine to self-medicate. A question in other minds is, “What about those children who take Ritalin and don’t need it?”

Comparing Ritalin (Methylphenidate) and Cocaine

Scientists know something about how methylphenidate and cocaine work in the brain, and this sheds some light on the possibility of a connection between Ritalin and cocaine use.

  1. Both cocaine and Ritalin are stimulants that elevate an individual’s level of alertness and productivity. They each work to raise the brain’s supply of the neurotransmitter dopamine and do it in the same way – by blocking the dopamine transporter protein. When the transporter is blocked, dopamine cannot be taken out of circulation.
  2. When taken by injection, both drugs enter the brain at about the same rate and target the same brain regions, especially the striatum and nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is thought to be a significant player in the development of addictions. However, when methylphenidate (Ritalin) is taken orally the story is different. Oral Ritalin enters the brain at a slower rate than when injected and does not target the nucleus accumbens.
  3. Scientists have found that the longer a drug sticks to its receptor site in the brain, the less addicting it is. In this respect, Ritalin is much less addicting than cocaine. While cocaine may rest on its receptors for two to four minutes, methylphenidate tends to hang out for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, even when taken via injection.
  4. When it comes to blocking the dopamine transporter protein, Ritalin is more powerful or potent than cocaine (you need less Ritalin to get the same effect).
  5. The “high” that follows the blocking of dopamine transporter proteins is less pronounced with methylphenidate than with cocaine. This suggests that, though both drugs inhibit the transporter, there are differences in the way they work.

A Few Answers, Questions Remain

Although much is still unknown, it is evident that the method in which Ritalin is ingested has much to do with its addictive potential.

If Ritalin is snorted or injected, it can be just as problematic as cocaine. Taken orally, and as prescribed, it does not appear to be a gateway drug, at least not for those who need it. Still, we are left weighing the potential risks or side effects of a medication against its life-enhancing benefits.

Sources: The University of Utah, Genetic Science Learning Center and ADHD Treatments

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