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Is Methylphenidate Anything Like Cocaine?

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
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a small bag of cocaine and methylphenidate pills on a white background

Methylphenidate is the active ingredient in two major drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Ritalin and Concerta. Ritalin is the immediate-release form of methylphenidate, whereas Concerta is the extended-release form of the drug.

Methylphenidate is classified as a central nervous system stimulant or psychostimulant medication. It is a Schedule II controlled substance. Methylphenidate also has other medicinal uses that include treating narcolepsy and addressing other conditions, such as promoting wakefulness and helping with appetite control or weight loss.

Cocaine (benzoylmethylecgonine) is a substance that is processed from the coca plant. It is also classified as a central nervous system stimulant drug and still has some medicinal uses, particularly as an anesthetic for dental surgery. Although cocaine is most often recognized as an illicit drug, it is actually a controlled substance in the same category as methylphenidate because of its potential medicinal uses. Unlike methylphenidate, cocaine is not prescribed to private individuals; instead, its use is limited to clinics and hospitals.

Are Methylphenidate and Cocaine Alike?

Drugs that are classified in the same category (psychostimulants or central nervous system stimulants) share numerous similarities, or they would not be classified in the same general category.

On a very basic level, all psychostimulants affect the functioning of the nervous system, such that they speed up its functioning. The general effects of these drugs include increasing attention, boosting awareness, amplifying energy, lessening appetite, and reducing the need for sleep. Thus, the simple answer to the question is that the drugs are alike in some respects; however, further elaboration is needed before assuming that children who are taking methylphenidate are taking cocaine.

A brief summary follows based on the information from the books Cocaine and Other Stimulants and Drugs, Society & Human Behavior.

  • Structure: Methylphenidate and cocaine share similar chemical properties.
  • General mechanism of action: Methylphenidate and cocaine exert their stimulant effects by elevating dopamine levels in the brain in a very similar fashion, mainly by blocking the ability of the neurons in the central nervous system to reabsorb dopamine once it is released by blocking the reuptake of dopamine.
  • Similarities: Because of their similar chemical structure and similar mechanism of action, it is possible to study the effects of either drug by looking at the actions of the other. Researchers can study the basic principles of action associated with cocaine use in animals by using methylphenidate and vice versa.
  • Tolerance: Both of the drugs can produce significant tolerance, meaning that after taking the drug for a while, a person’s system will adjust to the effects of the drug. They will need more of the drug to get the same effects that they previously achieved with smaller doses.
  • Physical dependence: Both of the drugs can produce physical dependence (first tolerance, then a withdrawal syndrome) that is pretty similar in its presentation. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) lists the diagnostic criteria for the development of a stimulant use disorder (abuse or addiction to stimulants), intoxication associated with stimulant use, and the withdrawal from stimulant medications as applying to all stimulant medications because abuse of the drugs in this category and their withdrawal syndrome are so similar that they share the same characteristics.
  • Abuse: Both drugs can be abused. When methylphenidate is abused, the pills are often crushed and snorted or mixed with water and injected. Cocaine is often snorted, smoked, or injected.
  • Side effects: Side effects of the drugs are similar when the drugs are taken in similar quantities and through similar methods of administration. Abuse of any drug increases the potential for side effects, including effects that would normally be rare when the drug is used in a manner consistent with its prescribed use. For instance, few people taking medicinal cocaine experience hallucinations and delusions, whereas hallucinations and delusions as a result of chronic cocaine abuse are not uncommon. Likewise, individuals who snort large amounts of methamphetamine are more prone to develop hallucinations and paranoia; however, children and adults using methylphenidate for the treatment of ADHD and according to its prescribed purposes rarely have these issues.

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Is Methylphenidate Safer than Cocaine?

Mans hand holding on palm plastic packet with cocaine powder or another drugs.

It appears that the effects of cocaine are experienced more rapidly in the brain than the effects of methylphenidate, although snorting methylphenidate in the matter that cocaine is snorted increases its onset of action. Despite the method of use, methylphenidate appears to be eliminated from the system a bit more slowly than cocaine, making it less likely to produce physical dependence than cocaine.

The level of euphoria that is obtained with medicinal doses of methylphenidate is negligible (comparable to the use of coffee). When abused in larger amounts and in a manner similar to cocaine, the drug will produce similar effects, which is why methylphenidate is a controlled substance.

Thus, unless children who use methylphenidate products for the treatment of ADHD are given large doses of the drug in a manner similar to the way cocaine is abused, the comparisons and statements that children being treated for ADHD are becoming “drug addicts” is not well founded. In fact, there is a substantial body of research that indicates that when children are treated for ADHD with stimulant medications, the risk of them developing later substance abuse issues is significantly decreased as opposed to being increased.

Prescription medications are designed to address specific types of disorders. Many prescription medications that have useful medicinal properties are abused, and this is an unfortunate ramification of the development of pharmaceuticals for the treatment of serious disorders and diseases.

Even though they share similar properties and can be abused, there is very little chatter that the drugs codeine and heroin are the same thing. Likewise, even though methylphenidate and cocaine share similar properties, they are not the same drug. Methylphenidate and even cocaine can be useful medicinally, but when abused, they can produce serious issues for people.

Methylphenidate and cocaine share numerous similarities, but they are not the same substance.

Last Updated on July 21, 2021
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
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