Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine

A Metropolitan Life ad from 1980 demonstrates the reversal of perceptions about amphetamine, now categorized as a Schedule-II narcotic in the United States.

A Metropolitan Life ad from 1980 demonstrates the reversal of perceptions about amphetamine, now categorized as a Schedule-II narcotic in the United States. (Advertising Archives)

Methamphetamine produced similar results; ironically, the accompanying recklessness, along with worries about addiction, quickly led the Germans to discourage its use in the field. American and British forces, however, used amphetamine throughout the war for its effects on mood and morale: it kept up the “fighting spirit.” The British later concluded the subjective boost wasn’t worth the potentially lethal side effects, but the American military continues to use amphetamine to this day, including in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

World War II did little to hurt the appetite for amphetamine. In fact, the increased exposure on the battlefield likely helped, and in 1945 SKF produced a million Benzedrine tablets a day. Knock-off artists like Clark & Clark ignored SKF’s patent to produce cheaper, competing pills. Rasmussen conservatively estimates that by the end of 1945 total production averaged about 750 million pills a year: enough for a million Americans to take two pills a day.

Many of those pills went to treat depression, with SKF’s advertisements elucidating a variety of types, including postpartum depression, the depression of the elderly, and depression related to chronic pain. The firm wanted doctors thinking of depression as broadly—and as often—as possible. An advertisement for Dexedrine, the right-handed stereoisomer of the amphetamine molecule, read: “Modern man is a victim of this era. War….rumors of war….atomic devastation….too much government….economic uncertainty.” (Allen Ginsberg used the phrase “the atomic disease” to describe both the generalized anxiety around him and, more specifically, amphetamine-induced paranoia.)

The ad offers a prescription not for a specific ailment but for an age. And for nearly three decades the medical community and general public seemed largely agreeable to the diagnosis. Amphetamine’s apparent usefulness just kept expanding. It became a diet pill: overeating, the thinking went, was the physical symptom of a deeper psychological problem. Paired with a barbiturate by SKF, the resulting drug became Dexamyl, another variety of antidepressant and by the 1960s a well-known “upper” among professional athletes.

In 1962 the FDA estimated that eight billion amphetamine pills were being produced every year in America. The pills were impossible to trace, but an epidemic of overprescription seemed obvious. Illicit use was a growing concern, one increasingly difficult to ignore or spin. The mid-1960s brought new social concerns about drug abuse, thanks in part to well-publicized stories from, for example, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The counterculture mecca had seen an influx of “speed freaks,” often homeless, who cooked their own bathtub amphetamine. In 1965 Allen Ginsberg turned against amphetamine, declaring, “Speed is anti-social, paranoid making, it’s a drag, bad for your body, bad for your mind.” Public opinion had begun to shift against amphetamine, with the “speed-freak” stories casting a harsh spotlight on even the more socially acceptable uses of the drug. Evolving science, particularly in Britain, showed the danger of addiction; cases of “amphetamine psychosis” were no longer discounted as coincidence. Rising safety concerns, alongside the emergence of new antidepressants, began to blunt amphetamine’s medical reputation as well. With both the public and the medical community turning against the drug, government action seemed inevitable.

In 1965 the FDA tightened restrictions, requiring more stringent record-keeping by the pharmaceutical industry. This ruling was meant to curb overprescription but proved to be virtually unenforceable. Doctors complicit with their patients’ amphetamine use had little to lose under the new law, and a large grey market still existed. In 1971 the omnibus Controlled Substances Act declared amphetamine a Schedule-II controlled substance—defined as having a high potential for abuse and dependence but with accepted medical use. Once a wonder drug, it was now categorized alongside cocaine, morphine, and opium.

Of course, it never truly went away. Illicit production continued, ramping up again after a brief lull following the government crackdown. Simplified processes for methamphetamine manufacture led to a resurgence in the mid-1980s. The subsequent crystal-meth epidemic has hit rural, western America particularly hard.

Perhaps more remarkable has been amphetamine’s return as a prescription drug. In 1936 psychiatrist Charles Bradley had experimented with a group of learning-disabled boys. Some had specific neurological damage, while others had emotional disturbances. Bradley found that amphetamine, paradoxically, calmed many of the children. SKF never fully exploited this finding, but it underpins the contemporary use of Ritalin and Adderall, both amphetamines. Rasmussen notes that in 2005 the combined pharmaceutical use of these two drugs reached levels similar to the medical use of amphetamine in 1969, just as regulators prepared to crack down.

Amphetamine’s persistence—both as a recreational drug and a medical treatment—suggests an irresolvable dichotomy. As the first drug valued almost entirely for its mood-altering effects, it blurred the line between treatment and enhancement. How important is a subjective “feeling of well being”? When does the lack of such feeling become a medical problem? How should it be treated, and how should society regard those who “abuse” such a drug? Amphetamine was arguably the first drug that forced us to ask these questions. We are still arguing about the answers.

Jesse Hicks is a freelance writer who has taught in the Science, Technology, and Society program at Pennsylvania State University.