Anti-Ritalin Campaign Misleading, Critics Say
Date: April 5, 1998
Twelve-page pamphlets are being handed out on street corners across the U.S., sounding frightening alarms about Ritalin, a prescription drug used for three decades to calm hyperactive children.
WARNING: Ritalin can lead to suicide.
WARNING: Ritalin can be addictive.
WARNING: Ritalin overdose can cause death.
In newspaper stories, on talk shows, at medical conventions, news conferences and neighborhood meetings, the group behind the pamphlets is also claiming that Ritalin is as dangerous as cocaine and causes delinquency and crime.
Researchers and government regulators looking into the legitimate worries about misuse or over-prescription of Ritalin ridicule these "facts" as distortions and exaggerations of their work. Because the claims are constantly recycled without qualification or context, they say, parents are panicking unnecessarily.
"Ritalin is a safe, effective drug. I don't know of any major problems with it," said Dr. Paul Leber, director of neuropharmacological products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The anti-Ritalin campaign is run from a sparsely furnished second- storey office here decorated with pictures of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, and staffed by people wearing Psychiatry Kills sweatshirts.
The campaign, complete with toll-free hotline, has made the commission's president, Dennis Clarke, a 41-year-old member of the Scientology church, perhaps the most quoted Ritalin expert in the U.S.
"Ritalin acts as a chemical strait-jacket," Clarke says.
What is not always clear in commission-supplied information are the group's ties to the Scientologists and that church's predisposition against the mental health profession.
Its latest goal, Clarke said, is to use lawsuits to bring about a ban on Ritalin, which he calls "one of the most dangerous and addictive substances known to man."
This fervor, medical experts say, is slanting the debate on Ritalin use.
"It's been wild, absolutely wild, really bizarre," said Dr. Jerry Wiener, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Something calls itself the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and all of a sudden it gets a lot of credibility, and they're being quoted without any kind of substantiation."
Ritalin has enjoyed success in treating children with a condition now widely known as attention deficit disorder. It reacts chemically to help calm their fidgeting, ease their impulsive, sometimes destructive behavior, and focus their attention so they do better in school.