Amphetamines conjure up many images: diet pills, all-night party (or study) sessions, and exploding backwoods labs.
Today, amphetamine and methamphetamine are only legally available as Schedule II controlled substance prescriptions. But at one time, these drugs were widely used.
The ephedra plant is known worldwide by many names. The English refer to it as a joint pine or Brigham tea. But most people recognize the plant by its traditional Chinese name, ma-huang. Ephedra has been used for centuries in both traditional medicines and religious ceremonies as a stimulant.
But what component of the plant caused the euphoric effect?
In 1885, Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi found the answer when he successfully isolated ephedrine.
Using plants as a raw material for drugs is always risky. The cost of raising and harvesting the crop added to an extended growing time means an expensive and time-consuming process. Plus, there’s the chance of a failed crop or supply chain problems.
Researchers are better off creating synthetic versions in the lab.
A speedy birth
Amphetamine and methamphetamine are central nervous stimulants referred to collectively as speed.
Amphetamine was synthesized from ephedrine by German scientists in 1887, and methamphetamine, also created by Nagayoshi, arrived in 1893. Pharmacologist Akira Ogata took methamphetamine one step further and synthesized its hydrochloride salt in 1919. The implications of this compound, known as crystal meth, wouldn’t be felt for another 50 years.
But at the time, no one could figure out a use for either drug.
Enter Smith, Kline, and French
The American pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline, and French (SKF) began life as the John K Smith & Co drugstore in 1830. Kline joined in 1865, and the company acquired French, Richards, and Co in 1891. Operating as Smith, Kline, and French laboratories, the company became devoted to research.
Pharmacologist Gordon Alles is best known for his work on insulin as a treatment for diabetes. But in the 1920s, he was more interested in understanding the effects of amphetamines on the body. In 1928, he created the first commercial form of amphetamine — an inhaler marketed under the trade name Benzedrine.
Its use? Nasal congestion.
Alles sold his patent to SKF and, inspired by his research, dove into the world of mind-altering drugs, often experimenting on himself.
He worked with methylenedioxyamphetamine (an early form of ecstasy), mescaline, and cannabis, developing them into drugs. Funded by both SKF and the U.S. Army’s chemical warfare program, Alles traveled the world investigating psychoactive properties in plants. In 1963, he was studying the tranquilizing effects of the Kava root in Tahiti. He died shortly after returning home, from, ironically, complications of diabetes.
SKF, meanwhile, was making a killing on amphetamine-related products. In addition to Benzedrine, the company enjoyed success with the stimulants Dexedrine and Dexamyl.
Customers flocked to get their hands on these trendy new medications. They had discovered a nifty side effect — euphoria and seemingly endless energy.
A wartime effort
During World War II, both Allied and Axis leaders were looking to increase endurance in their soldiers.
The Japanese had been familiar with the effects of amphetamines for awhile. Under the trade name Philopon,industrial workers mainly used methamphetamine to work longer hours and increase output.
The Japanese military, however, took advantage of the drug’s other side effects.
Similar to adrenaline, methamphetamine could increase both awareness and risk-taking behavior. Kamikaze pilots would often receive methamphetamine before a suicide flight mission.
The German army also had its version of methamphetamine.
Pervitin had originally been produced by the Temmler pharmaceutical company for congestion and asthma. But it soon found new use among soldiers, especially the Luftwaffe pilots.
Though the pilots were kept awake from the methamphetamine, its serious side effects forced the military to cut back on its distribution. Reports surfaced of hungover soldiers acting more like zombies on the battlefield or turning violent, attacking their own officers and civilians.
Undeterred, German scientists looked for other alternatives to the “Herman-Göring” tablets. They wanted a drug that not only increased endurance but would enhance performance. Dreams of an army of superhuman soldiers led researchers to experiment with combinations of methamphetamine, cocaine, and the opioid oxycodone.
Allied bomber pilots also received amphetamines to combat fatigue during long flights. In Finland, the drug was known as “pep powder” as it helped increase concentration and focus.
After the war, speed would find a new niche as the favored drug of the counter-culture.
From performance enhancer to creativity booster
Recreational use of Benzedrine soon became popular to boost creativity.
These “bennies” helped writer Jack Kerouac and film producer David Selznick create masterpieces. Methamphetamine also enabled Paul Erdős to become one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time.
Diagnosed with depression, Erdős took methylphenidate for most of his adult life. During that time, he published 1,500 papers, challenged students to prove his conjectures, and collaborated with more than 500 colleagues.
After winning a bet that he couldn’t go a month without using amphetamines, Erdős famously said, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.”
Purple hearts and clubbing stars
Another sub-culture that enjoyed speed for its sensory stimulation was the mods. This group arose in Swinging London and were known for miniskirts, resistance to the 9 to 5 jobs their parents held, and partying well into the night.
The use of a combination amphetamine and barbiturate product called Drinamyl heightened alertness. The mods found the effect preferable to the sloppy intoxication caused by alcohol.
These “purple hearts,” named for the shape of the Drinamyl tablet, allowed mods to dance all night long in nightclubs and emerge in the pre-dawn hours with dilated pupils.
Meth goes mainstream
In the 1950s, a drug named Obetrol became popular. The pharmaceutical company promoted this combination of methamphetamine and amphetamine salts as a diet pill.
American housewives clamored to get their hands on the miracle drug that gave them the energy to finish their housework while curbing their appetite.
Long-haul truckers relied on amphetamines to stay awake on the road.
Students used amphetamine drugs marketed for attention deficit disorder to cram the night before exams.
Eventually, reports of delusions, tooth grinding, paranoia, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and stroke began to surface. The addictive nature of speed was also revealed.
The FDA slowly began to restrict methamphetamine and amphetamine’s production and distribution. In 1965, they banned the sale of Benzedrine. By the early 1970s, both drugs became schedule II controlled substances, where they remain today.
Though these regulations reduced speed’s use by the general public, the production and sale of these drugs merely went underground.
The rise of crank
Black market production of methamphetamine began to increase in the 1960s.
The largest producer of meth? Motorcycle gangs. In fact, the term crank comes from here. Bikers would stash illegal methamphetamine in the crankcase of their motorcycles.
Methamphetamine production also went underground in Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Health had banned the manufacture of stimulant drugs in the 1950s. But a criminal syndicate known as the Yakuza took over instead. The black market sold these drugs under the name S, Shabu, and Speed.
Intravenous methamphetamine gained usage around this time as well. Capable of providing a quicker onset of action, IV meth created violent and erratic behavior in its users.
In the early 2000s, rolling meth labs “cooked” the drug with toxic and flammable chemicals. The resulting cheap drug flooded the market, and fiery lab explosions made headlines. Narcotics teams needed specialized Hazmat training to handle the cleanup.
Government agencies rushed to regulate the main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, and the domestic production of meth declined sharply.
Methamphetamine may be forgotten, but it’s still around.
Nowadays, the drug crosses the border from Mexican drug cartels. It’s still cheap and now nearly 100% pure. Death rates are rising, but the war on opioids eclipses the battle against methamphetamine.
Amphetamine abuse is also still present.
Students and white-collar workers continue to rely on Adderall and other ADHD drugs. Now, amphetamine use is appearing in a new population— gamers and the video game industry.
Drugs have always been a part of human society and always will be. But with education, they don’t have to ruin lives. If you, or someone you know, struggles with addiction, please reach out. Take the first step and simply talk to someone.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Dial 1–800–662-HELP (4357).