Are ADHD Drugs in Short Supply?

ADHD patients can't fill prescriptions for their medications. Could the DEA be to blame?

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Chris Gallagher

Millions of Americans may find their prescribed medications in short supply in 2012, as doctors and drug companies anticipate “widespread shortages” of the pills used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Already hundreds of patients are complaining to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) every day, according to the New York Times, claiming that they cannot find a pharmacy to fill prescriptions for common drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. The Times also reports that this apparent drug shortage has led to “a rare open disagreement between two federal agencies.”

The reason for the shortage? While the FDA would be happy to see more pills for sale, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which controls how much of the active ingredient in ADHD drugs are available to drug makers, have restricted the volume of this agent on the market in an effort to combat illicit drug abuse.

ADHD prescriptions are extremely common in the U.S. Almost 10% of school-aged children have received an ADHD diagnosis at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; a smaller fraction of U.S. adults have ADHD. Prescriptions for one popular medication, Adderall, increased 13.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to IMS Health, which monitors prescription data. While symptoms include inattentiveness, over-activity, and impulsivity, treatment with psychostimulant drugs can help to ease those symptoms, making it easier for sufferers to concentrate on work or on school and to avoid embarrassing impulsive behavior.

MORE: Does the ADHD Drug Shortage Herald a Crackdown on Stimulants?

Those same psychostimulant drugs, however, have also gained popularity on the black market. They are especially popular among college students, who use them to get high, or who hope the pills will help to improve focus and memory while studying.

Hence the clash between patients, who feel they need the drugs to function normally, and drug enforcement officials, who want to crack down on non-prescription use and abuse. FoxNews reports that the DEA is increasingly restricting how much of the drug’s active pharmaceutical ingredient can be distributed to commercial manufacturers. The goal is to “prevent the creation of stockpiles that could be diverted for inappropriate use,” FoxNews reports. Normally, the DEA determines how much of the active ingredient to release based on demand, but with ADHD diagnoses on the rise nationally, people disagree over how much medication will be needed for legitimate prescription use.

Even President Obama, has weighed in, recently issuing an executive order requiring that the FDA address the shortages that many patients are reporting.

For now, if there is a sustained shortage, the New York Times suggests we may see drug manufacturers “use their limited quotas” to keep up production of brand-name drugs — on which company profits are typically greatest — while they limit production of cheaper generics. That means it may be the poorest patients who feel the shortage the most. “I am very concerned about the future,” Ruth Hughes, chief executive of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyeractivity Disorder (CHADD) told Reuters. “No one seems to have much inventory to get us through the months ahead.”