Pubdate: Wed, 07 Feb 2001
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2001 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Contact:  P.O. Box 661, Milwaukee, WI 53201
Fax: 414-224-8280
Author: Peter Maller, Lauria Lynch-German, Journal Sentinel staff


Tracking Abusers Difficult, Officials Say

Ritalin was once considered a wonder drug for hyperactive children, but 
there is growing evidence that adults are becoming hooked on its 
caffeine-like jolt and breaking the law to obtain it.

Take the case of Jennifer McNeil, a 33-year-old mother of two from Ozaukee 
County who is suspected of robbing eight pharmacies to obtain it. She 
described to authorities an addiction so out of control that she fashioned 
toy weapons and hogtied clerks while apologetically robbing pharmacies.

Or Gerald Smith, a 50-year-old elementary school principal who was 
sentenced to 30 days in jail last year after stealing Ritalin from a safe 
at his school in Orem, Utah.

Or Robert Tice, a 44-year-old police officer in a Baltimore suburb who was 
suspended without pay in 1999 and charged with altering a prescription to 
obtain it.

And Cynthia Long, a Cedarburg mother who was charged in January with a 
misdemeanor accusing her of stealing Ritalin twice last year from a school 
her child attends. The 30-year-old woman said she needed to make phone 
calls in the principal's office and then took bottles of the drug from 
behind a counter, according to a criminal complaint.

Wisconsin officials are frustrated because they lack a centralized system 
for tracking abusers of prescription drugs such as Ritalin, said Cindy 
Benning, leader of the state Controlled Substances Board. Without this 
information, law enforcement officials cannot get a grip on the extent of 
the problem, she said.

Benning has called for a computerized data system that would identify 
people with addictions to legal drugs who might otherwise slip through the 

"If somebody's getting 600 doses of a particular drug in one month - and 
they're visiting six doctors for prescriptions and six pharmacies to get 
them filled - the computer would spit out that person's name," Benning said.

Benning has testified before a special legislative committee investigating 
problems related to Ritalin and similar medications given to juveniles, but 
she couldn't give lawmakers as much information as they wanted, she said.

"I don't know how we'll ever get a handle on all the illicit stuff going 
on," she said. "We don't have any way to get concrete data on abuses 
involving drugs like Ritalin."

Other states track

Centralized tracking systems have been established in 26 states. Though 
extremely effective, these systems are costly to install and the 
information does not pop up instantly on computer screens at pharmacies, 
Benning said. Rather, the data needs to be sorted by the government and 
then letters identifying abusers are mailed to pharmacies.

Creating a computerized tracking system sounds like a good idea but would 
have trouble in reality, some pharmacists say.

Drug abusers could quickly find a way around it, said Marty Becker, a 
pharmacist at Port Apothecary in Port Washington. For example, some abusers 
might hide from such a system by paying for prescriptions with cash, 
lessening the paper trail that would lead to them, he said.

"Is it a good idea? Yes. But would it be attainable? I don't think so," 
Becker said.

Ritalin, the trade name for methylphenidate, is a prescription drug used 
widely to treat highly active children diagnosed with a condition known as 
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD, formerly known as ADD, is a 
common neurobehavioral condition that affects 4% to 12% of all school-age 
children, particularly boys. It is characterized by impulsive behavior, 
difficulty in paying attention and an inability to keep still. ADHD often 
occurs in association with depression and developmental disorders such as 
speech impairment or learning disabilities.

Though classified as a stimulant, Ritalin has been touted for helping 
children concentrate.

But for children and adults who do not have this disorder, the 
amphetamine-based chemical produces an emotional high resembling an extreme 
caffeine-like buzz.

The drug can overstimulate the heart and cause sleeplessness and appetite 
loss. Ritalin users are frequently driven to complete fatigue.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children prescribed 
Ritalin do not become addicted when they take the drug in treatment 
dosages. Some researchers, however, say that students who have used Ritalin 
as children have introduced the drug to college campuses, where it is sold 
for as much as $10 a pill.

Ritalin production soars

Ritalin's availability has soared in recent years. Production increased 
650% between 1990 and 1997, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement 

Manufacturing the drug at this rate opens the door to abuses, said Eric 
Heiligenstein, a physician who studied the habits of students using Ritalin 
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Accessibility adds to the problem," said Heiligenstein, director of 
clinical psychiatry at the campus' University Health Services. "When there 
is more availability, there is just more opportunity to get it."

Ritalin and its generic equivalents accounted for 13% of all drugs stolen 
or missing from hospitals, pharmacies and physicians' offices in 1999 and 
2000 in Wisconsin, said Mike Grafton, an investigator at the Drug 
Enforcement Administration.

No one yet sees Ritalin's connection to crimes as an epidemic.

Still, the cases such as McNeil's and others show the lengths people might 
go to to feed a Ritalin habit.

McNeil is charged in Washington County Circuit Court with robbing the 
ShopKo pharmacy in West Bend and police say she has confessed to robberies 
in Elm Grove, Brookfield, Menomonee Falls, Grafton, Sheboygan and Eagle River.

"She is an example of how addiction to any drug, even a prescription drug 
like Ritalin, drives someone to do something they never thought of in their 
wildest dreams," Washington County District Attorney Todd Martens said.

McNeil told authorities that, sometimes using a toy gun and even a duck 
call device disguised as a gun, she entered eight pharmacies and demanded 
cash and drugs, police say.

McNeil used duct tape to bind pharmacy workers' hands behind their backs, 
authorities say, then apologized on her way out.

During one robbery, a frightened pharmacist turned over all the money and 
checks in his cash register.

But all she wanted was the Ritalin.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager