ADHD Could Spark Early Drug Use, New Study Finds

By McCarton Ackerman 01/30/15

Researchers at the University of Florida found that drug users with ADHD started their substance abuse earlier.

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It’s widely accepted that some people are more susceptible to drug addiction than others, but a new study has found that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could be a culprit for people using drugs earlier.

The findings from the University of Florida found that adult drug users with ADHD started using one to two years earlier than those who don’t have the disorder. Using survey data from more than 900 adults who had done illegal drugs within the last six months of the study, 13% said they had received an ADHD diagnosis from a medical provider. Those with the diagnosis said they first drank alcohol at age 13, about 18 months earlier than their counterparts, while those who used cocaine began on average at age 22, roughly two years earlier than those who did not have ADHD.

Lead author Eugene Dunne, a third-year doctoral student in clinical and health psychology at UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, said drug use among ADHD sufferers could be an attempt to self-medicate symptoms of the disorder. Stimulants like nicotine and cocaine could be used to mask symptoms of inattention, while pot and alcohol could be used to buffer feelings of impulsivity or hyperactivity.

Dunne’s thoughts on impulsivity and drug use also came from his findings, which showed that injected drug use and needle sharing, both high-risk behaviors for HIV, were associated with ADHD history.

“The take-home message of this study shouldn’t be that children with ADHD are more likely to become drug users,” said Dunne. “Rather, seemingly ‘normal’ teenage behavior, such as experimenting with tobacco or alcohol use, may occur at younger ages for individuals with ADHD and so this might serve as a red flag for an accelerated gateway to illicit drug use.

Some ADHD medications can also help prevent drug use. The findings of a study from Australia released last October showed that Lisdexamfetamine, which is used to treat ADHD in kids ages 6-18, may be able to help meth addicts curb their cravings.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.