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Are There Speed Freaks in the Major Leagues Trying to Gain an Edge, or Just a Lot of Legitimate ADHD Patients?

A lot of athletes are still taking powerful drugs -- some with prescriptions, some without.
 
 
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Sports fans find it hard not to laugh at psychostimulants in the headlines. Scan them today and you'll find busted users in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and elsewhere breaking rules to swallow pills, in sports whose predictable drug abuse goes back decades. But kids emulating these athletes, and those who aren't, are also snorting and selling psychostimulants to stay awake to make grades and money. And then what? One starts to wonder whether we're stimulating too many psychos.

Consider the amphetamine Adderall, which has for the last few years of the United States' prescription drug abuse epidemic become quite the performance enhancer. Since appearing in the '90s from Ireland's Shire Pharmaceuticals as a spinoff of a weight-control drug, through the years Adderall has sped its way to Israel's Teva Pharmaceuticals, which has cornered both its brand and generic market to the tune of $40 a share, as well approved consumption by everyone from preschoolers to professional ballers.

"There is a growing number of people taking these drugs to gain an edge on concentration," the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists' Barbara Young told AlterNet. "But these drugs are stimulants. Could people achieve the same focus with 10 cups of coffee? Perhaps. But these stimulants are being used more for performance enhancement rather than their approved use for a diagnosed clinical condition."

Those clinical conditions range rather widely within the agitations of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Once a suspicious umbrella for a variety of behavioral issues, ADHD has since become rock-star cool and a disproportional affliction of athletic millionaires. Over the years, baseball's recently self-released drug reports of athletes taking Adderall and other stimulants -- with a prescription, mind you -- was roughly double the general population. Major leaguers like Andres Torres and Scott Eyre have come out with ADHD, while others like Jason Kendall have been bogged in Adderall scandals and busts. In the last few weeks, minor leaguers have been getting nailed for amphetamines at a brisk clip.

"I have no comment," Major League Baseball's scouting bureau director Frank Marcos said, after AlterNet asked his thoughts about stimulant use and abuse in the minor and majors. And who could blame him? After all, the drug is everywhere now that it has received the imprimatur of acceptable treatment.

NFL players like Tyler Sash and more recently Joe Haden have been busted for Adderall without a prescription, while their legitimately dosed teammates with perhaps more liberal doctors and pharmacists skate on by. AlterNet got about as far discussing the psychostimulant situation with the NFL Player's Association as it did with the MLB scouts. But two days after we queried it about Adderall and the lawsuit-prone Ritalin, the NFLPA released a warning to players that they need the proper therapeutic use exemptions to take them. They can't just pop any pill someone hands them at a party.

Athletes with proper exemptions and diagnoses include baseball players like Torres, subject of a forthcoming documentary from director Anthony Haney-Jardine, who says he was an early ADHD skeptic, but has since situated Torres' condition as the axis of his film biography.

"I was skeptical because I was damned ignorant," Haney-Jardine told AlterNet "I'm ashamed to admit this, but my personal premise was that ADHD was a condition that lived on a spectrum, that effectively existed in every one of us. That those who suffered from it were weak and lacking self-discipline, control or adequate education. I had a personal disdain when I heard that anyone was getting special dispensation. I thought that ADHD was a word for a syndrome created by marketers, to sort out children who lacked control and the long stick of discipline. In the end, I realized that it is both a social construct and an actual mental condition."

Separating those two is a continuing cognitive dissonance fraught with its own turf politics and economics. Where does the social construction of ADHD end, and where does its actual mental condition begin? Or is that vice versa? Solve that knotted tangle and you'll know who's taking psychostimulants to function normally and who's taking them to get over.

"Torres suffers an acute case," added Haney-Jardine, who declined to discuss the medication taken by the New York Mets' newest acquisition. "He has enormous trouble concentrating. He has trouble shutting down his brain, especially at night, and he has enormous troubles with the executive function of the brain. Imagine a 100 mile-per-hour pitch coming at you while you're thinking about rice and beans your mom used to make."

Scott Eyre discussed presumably similar distractions in 2001, after being one of baseball's earliest players to declare ADHD.

"I was on the mound and the catcher came out to talk to me, and when he walked away, I got distracted by the crowd and couldn't remember a word he said," Eyre told Additude magazine. "Suddenly I felt totally confused. I had no idea what I was doing."

That both players have turned to accepted pharmaceutical treatment for ADHD is instructive, as are the questions surrounding whether or not these are acceptable reasons for obvious performance enhancement. Especially from an entertainment profession fully primed to create athletes with prescription drug addictions.

"Torres was diagnosed in the mid-'00s by a psychiatrist and given medication, and there were dramatic changes on the field and at home as a result," Anthony Haney-Jardine explained. "He was a career minor leaguer. Suddenly, he took medication and he has a World Series ring. That's not to say that medication is the silver bullet, or that it works for everyone."

Perhaps not, but it obviously works, for athletes and students. College papers are publishing commentaries about how it's easy for students to score Adderall from doctors happy to hand out the amped candy, as well as their financially savvy classmates. "We're seeing it all across the United States," the DEA told the New York Times.

"With stimulants, these adverse effects can be quite serious, particularly if you don't know what dose you're supposed to be taking," Barbara Young explained. "When students are taking these things, they don't know if one is good, two is better, three is really good or four are for their finals."

"There's a lot of peer pressure," she added. "Students who are on ADHD medication are also feeling the pressure of diversion, which is selling and stealing the drug, and we hear about diversion along the retail pipeline from wholesalers and others. But I think the floodgates open once it's dispensed to consumers. Once people try to make money from drugs like Adderall that achieve a certain cachet, the online prescription industry starts booming. I'm sure you get spam for it; Adderall is up there with Viagra."

According to Teva Pharmaceuticals, that dangerous but lucrative diversion of Adderall is someone else's problem.

Like oxycontin and cocaine, "Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, and the package insert clearly states the risks associated with incorrect dosage, misuse or abuse and recommends that doctors properly monitor patients," Teva spokesperson Denise Bradley told AlterNet. "Prescription medicine should be taken according to the package insert and under the supervision of a doctor."

Sure it should, but users and observers both know that's just not how the world works. Currently, it works this way: We will take, by any means necessary, any drug we can get our hands on to process the mad, mad world we've created, especially to gain any advantage we can over the fading faces around us. To expect our children or athletes, who we're dosing to gain the same advantages over their peers and competitors, to adhere to another model of reality makes no sense to them. Their wise elders and voyeurs created a world where everyone along the pharmaceutical supply line, from manufacturers and counterfeiters to pushers and professional and amateur consumers, is more part of the problem than the solution.

"Prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults is occurring at a faster rate than illegal substances," warned Young.

A rigorous application of regulation and reexamination of these drugs would no doubt help stem that surging tide. But no one is really willing to pull the trigger when the medical establishment can't seem to find a dividing line between the lasting ethics of "Do No Harm" and the addictive paydays of "Don't Worry Be Happy." If the doctors can't find consensus, the users will always find loopholes.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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