Despite a relatively short history – amphetamines haven’t been around even 150 years – the recreational use of amphetamines has been rumored to sport quite a range of influential personalities, from Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill to Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy.
Today the allure of amphetamines in America remains as strong as ever – so much so that a 2008 report by the National Institutes of Health describes it in terms of an “outbreak” that may surpass that of heroin. Just how did amphetamines (often synonymous with “speed”) come to assume both unprecedented popularity and notoriety in the form of foreboding public service announcements?
Early Twentieth-Century America: A Meteoric Rise to Fame
The current-day popularity of amphetamines (and their close relative methamphetamine) belies the relative youth of these drugs. Amphetamines have only been in use since the first synthesis of the stimulant amphetamine in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu. Methamphetamine has been in use since its discovery by a Japanese chemist in 1919.
In the 1920s, America’s medical community began to trumpet the drugs’ medicinal promise, and amphetamines were used to treat a range of conditions, from bronchial congestion and fatigue, to narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder and obesity; and in 1944, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would approve the use of amphetamines for treating narcolepsy, alcoholism, depression and seasonal allergies.
Abuse of amphetamines began in the 1930s with the marketing of the over-the-counter inhaler Benzedrine (nicknamed “bennies” by users), which was used medically to enlarge constricted naval passages but was soon discovered to have stimulating euphoric effects as well. Recreational users would crack open the container and swallow the Benzedrine-coated paper strip inside, often rolling the strip into a ball and taking it with coffee or alcohol. Reports of Benzedrine inhalers’ frequent use as a recreational drug resulted in doctors discontinuing their prescriptions of it, starting in the late 1940s. In 1959, the FDA made Benzedrine available only by prescription.
The Wartime Drug of Choice: The Twentieth Century – and Beyond?
The 1940s also witnessed the widespread distribution of amphetamines to both Axis and Allied soldiers fighting in World War II, for whom issues of mood, fatigue and endurance found relief with the help of the stimulant. More than 35 million three-milligram doses of the amphetamine-containing drug Pervitin (in essence, speed) were manufactured for the German army and air force, just in the months between April and July 1940 alone; these were distributed across all ranks and divisions, from the highest-ranking officers to the lowest-level army men.
Letters written from the frontlines to families at home are an indication of both how accessible and addictive Pervitin could be. One letter, from a young soldier stationed in Poland, reads: “It’s tough out here…Today I’m writing you mainly to ask for some Pervitin. Love, Hein.” The same soldier writes months later with a similar request: “Perhaps you could get me some more Pervitin so that I can have a backup supply?” And then in a later letter, “If at all possible, please send me some more Pervitin.” The man who wrote these letters, Heinrich Boell, would go on to become the first German to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature post-World War II.
In January 1942, a group of 500 German soldiers stationed on the eastern front were attempting a getaway from the encroaching Red Army. Six hours into their frantic retreat in below-freezing temperatures and waist-high snow in places, many of the soldiers were so exhausted that they were “beginning to simply lie down in the snow,” according to a report by the unit’s military doctor. That was when the group’s commanding officers dispensed Pervitin to the troops, with results reportedly showing in half an hour: “[The soldiers] began marching in orderly fashion again, their spirits improved, and they became more alert,” according to the doctor’s report.The Führer himself was dependent on amphetamines: During the last years of his life, Adolf Hitler received regular intravenous injections of methamphetamine from his personal physician Theodor Morell, who was known for his “unconventional” treatments. Recent studies have shown a direct link between methamphetamine and violence, with chronic users of meth displaying a six-fold increase in violent behaviors.
But the German Axis forces weren’t alone in their use of amphetamines to help them fight longer and harder. Allied bomber pilots relied on amphetamines to keep them awake on long flights – not unlike how drivers or students today may on occasion drink the highly caffeinated drink “Red Bull” to keep them from dozing on a long drive or to stay alert during an all-nighter of test preparation. (Students and truckers have also been known to abuse amphetamines, a.k.a. “pep pills,” for the same reason.)
Amphetamines would be used for similar purposes during the Vietnam War beginning in 1959, and even as late as the Persian Gulf War in 1990, during which time it was estimated that roughly half of U.S. air force pilots were voluntarily using amphetamines.
On the night of April 17, 2002, in an event that would subsequently be known as the “Tarnak Farm Incident,” an American F-16 fighter accidently dropped a laser-guided, 500-pound bomb on Canadian soldiers conducting night firing exercises at Tarnak Farms, near Kandahar, Afghanistan. The ensuing deaths were Canada’s first losses in the war in Afghanistan and their first since the Korean War. The pilot, an Air National Guard major by the name of Harry Schmidt, blamed the tragedy on the amphetamines he was using at the time. (His claim was later rejected in a U.S. Air Force hearing.)
1950s and 1960s America: The Pharmacological Revolution and the Beat Generation
In the 1950s, numerous drugs emerged on the scene as potential treatments for psychiatric conditions like insomnia, anxiety and depression – hence the term “pharmacological revolution” so often ascribed to this period. Amphetamines were no exception, with the result that a number of famous personalities were prescribed them. After his stroke in 1953, the great British statesman Winston Churchill became dependent on a drug that on the streets was known as “purple hearts” – Drinamyl, dispensed in the form of little blue pills, was part barbiturate, part amphetamine. Churchill was so fond of his favorite fix that he gave it the pet name “Morans.”
Churchill wasn’t the only statesman to rely on amphetamines. President John F. Kennedy, too, apparently benefited from his doctor Max Jacobson’s so-called “tissue generator” shots – a combination of amphetamines, animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins. (Such formidable concoctions had earned Dr. Jacobson the names “Miracle Max” and “Dr. Feelgood.”) Kennedy first sought Dr. Jacobson’s help for severe back pain on the eve of the 1960 presidential debates, and later, despite surfacing FDA concerns about the content of Dr. Jacobson’s injections, would declare, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”
Dr. Jacobson’s other high-profile clients included the author Truman Capote, actresses Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, baseball player Mickey Mantle, singer Elvis Presley and playwright Tennessee Williams, among others. Dr. Jacobson himself was very likely dependent on amphetamines: by the late 1960’s, he was said to be working 24-hour days, seeing up to 30 patients per day. Dr. Jacobson’s medical license was eventually revoked after the former presidential photographer Mark Shaw (one of Dr. Jacobson’s clients) died at the age of 47 from “acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning.”
The period of the 1950s and 1960s also saw the flowering of America’s “Beat Generation” and the work of famous authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who, in addition to producing great works of post-World War II literature, were avid consumers of speed. As early as the 1940s, Kerouac and Ginsberg were inhaling Benzedrine in search of creative inspiration.
In 1962, the increasingly popular practice of injecting amphetamines (“mainlining”) drew national attention when San Francisco pharmacies selling injectable amphetamines became the target of a federal crackdown. Not long after, the manufacturing of speed went underground as underground, home-grown production facilities (“speed labs”) cropped up most along the West Coast. In 1965, all non-prescription amphetamines became illegal.
1970s America to the Present
Amphetamine use declined in the 1970s, thanks to tougher laws and growing public awareness of the dangers, including the reality of addiction. At the generally higher doses that recreational use entails, amphetamines can cause psychosis and severe cognitive impairment, and can result in significant muscle breakdown. By the 1970s, such effects were known.
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act severely restricted the legal injection of methamphetamine, and in 1971 the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act went on to classify amphetamine and methamphetamine as Schedule II drugs, the FDA’s most restricted category for prescription drugs.
The 1980s saw further restrictions on even over-the-counter cold and flu drugs like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make methamphetamine. Today, depending on where you are in the United States, these medicines can still require the show of an identification card upon purchase.
The 1990s saw the growing popularity of a smokable form of methamphetamine known as “crystal meth” or “ice.” Starting in 1995, Mexico-based manufacturing groups began to dominate the illicit trade, quickly outpacing mom and pop labs in the U.S. Their biggest market comprises high school and college students and white blue-collar workers in their 20s and 30s, as illustrated in the award-winning AMC network television show, “Breaking Bad,” about a chemistry teacher who teams up with a former student to cook meth. Popular television coverage notwithstanding, today the proportion of Americans who use meth on a monthly basis remains in the range of .2 to .3 percent of the population (the same as in 1999).
Meanwhile, if amphetamines are heavily regulated today, they’re also widely prescribed to both children and adults as a treatment for attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – making their legalized medical use higher than ever before in U.S. history. At the top of this list is the drug Adderall, described in a 2013 article in The Huffington Post as “America’s favorite amphetamine.” The same article notes that in 2010, more than 18 million Adderall prescriptions were written, “which means that a crippling epidemic of ADD/ADHD is sweeping America, or else there’s a growing recreational demand for the brand of amphetamine that everyone trust.”
Illicit use of amphetamines has also risen since the 1970s, with the result that those without a doctor’s prescription for Adderall or insurance coverage can readily find the drug on the street and often at more affordable prices than in their local pharmacy. The same 2008 NIH report that describes Americans’ present-day use of amphetamines in epidemic proportions bases its claims of “an outbreak of amphetamine abuse” on national surveys that found that three million Americans had used amphetamine-type stimulants non-medically in the past year, 600,000 in the past week, and 250,000 and 300,000 addictively. And on a list of the 20 most popular recreational drugs, amphetamines have been ranked as the eighth most addictive and the ninth most harmful by psychiatrists specializing in addiction treatment.
These facts hasn’t stopped recreational users of speed from employing all manner of administration to experience the drug’s stimulating effects, from intravenous injection and smoking to anal or vaginal suppositories. The story of amphetamine use – a saga of both fame and infamy – continues.