Rapid Opiate Detox

Amphetamine Abuse: A Brief History

By Hugh C. McBride
Viewed in some circles as the less-threatening “little brother” of the dangerous and highly addictive crystal meth, amphetamine remains a significant threat to the adolescents and adults who use the drug in misguided attempts to fight off fatigue, enhance concentration, or gain a competitive edge in an athletic event.


Commonly referred to as “speed,” amphetamine is the primary active ingredient in medications designed to deal with a wide range of conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, traumatic brain injury, and overweight.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, amphetamine intoxication can lead to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism; feelings of exhilaration and energy; heightened alertness; and reduced appetite. Health consequences of amphetamine abuse and withdrawal, NIDA reports, can include irritability, anxiety, and restlessness; delirium and psychosis; the loss of coordination; panic and paranoia; and heart failure.

On June 23, 2008, the Reuters news service reported that a three-year review of more than three million hospitalized adults in Texas discovered that amphetamine abusers ages 18 to 44 were 61 percent more likely to be treated for a heart attack than were non-users in the same age group.

In the United States, amphetamine is classified as a Schedule II stimulant, meaning that the U.S. government has determined that although the drug has legitimate medical uses, its high potential for abuse – and the likelihood that its use may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence – demands that its possession and distribution be subject to federal regulation.


The history of amphetamine abuse involves a cast of characters that would make any film noir scriptwriter proud. Nazi soldiers ingested mass quantities of the drug during the dark days of World War II; Jack Kerouac is alleged to have written his classic novel On The Road while high on amphetamine-rich Benzedrine; Malcolm X recalled his use of the drug in his autobiography; and even the great fictional spy James Bond took it on at least two occasions, in the novels Moonraker and Live and Let Die.

First synthesized by German chemists in the late 1880s, amphetamine remained relatively ignored for more than 40 years, until the company Smith, Kline, and French began marketing Benzedrine as a decongestant in the early 1930s.

During World War II, both Axis and Allied troops used Benzedrine to ward off fatigue and keep themselves alert. In “Hitler’s Drugged Soldiers,” an article that appeared in the May 6, 2005 edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel, writer Andreas Ulrich reported German soldiers’ widespread use of Pervitin, an amphetamine-based drug.

“The Nazis preached abstinence in the name of promoting national health,” Ulrich wrote. “But when it came to fighting their Blitzkrieg, they had no qualms about pumping their soldiers full of drugs and alcohol. Speed was the drug of choice …”

Long before the United States entered the war, German leaders were issuing massive quantities of the drug in the name of alertness and morale, Ulrich reported:

During the short period between April and July of 1940, more than 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan (a slightly modified version produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company) were shipped to the German army and air force.

Some of the tablets, each containing three milligrams of active substance, were sent to the Wehrmacht's medical divisions under the code name OBM, and then distributed directly to the troops. A rush order could even be placed by telephone if a shipment was urgently needed.

Reporting on a recent resurgence of Pervitin abuse in the Czech Republic, Prague Post staff writer Markta Hulpachov noted that the drug can have devastating effects. In the Nov. 28, 2007 edition of the paper, Hulpachov reported that Pervitin use “can cause long-term psychological damage, leading to certain types of psychosis.”

After the war, amphetamine became one of the drugs of choice of many of the writers and poets who comprised the Beat Generation. As the online reference site Wikipedia reports, “Benzedrine at that time was available in the form of plastic inhalers, containing a piece of folded paper soaked in the drug. They would typically crack open the inhalers and drop the paper in coffee, or just wad it up and swallow it whole.”


Benzedrine was available over the counter until 1959, when concerns over its abuse prompted the FDA to reclassify it as a prescription-only medication. Long after the removal of Benzedrine from drug store shelves, though, amphetamine continued to be used recreationally. It also served as an appetite suppressant, as well as an “upper” to help truck drivers on long hauls and college students cramming for exams. Restrictive laws implemented in the 1970s made the drug harder to acquire, and the spotlight shifted onto substances such as cocaine, Ecstasy, and crystal meth.

A high-profile reminder of the dangers of amphetamine abuse occurred in 2002, when media reports of a “friendly fire” incident in which American planes mistakenly bombed Canadian forces in Afghanistan noted that U.S. Air Force pilots routinely took dextroamphetamine-laced “go pills” before heading out on long missions.

In an Aug. 1, 2002 article, Toronto Star reporter William Walker wrote that Air Force pilots “are allowed to ‘self-regulate’ the amounts of Dexedrine they take. They carry the pills in the single-person cockpit of their F-16s and take them as they wish.” Walker also reported that pilots who can’t sleep after missions are often given Ambien or Restoril.

Among those who took issue with this practice was Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben, director of the Sleep Disorder Centre at the New York University School of Medicine, who warned against giving wartime pilots a drug that can cause hallucinations and delusions.

“Dexedrine also leads a person to build a tolerance level for the drug and … addictive tendencies among those who continue to use it regularly,” Walsleben told Walker. “The threat of abuse and addiction is definitely higher with Dexedrine.”


Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that amphetamine abuse is on the decline, especially among teens and adolescents. But NIDA’s annual “Monitoring the Future” report reveals that 2.1 percent of American 8th graders, 2.8 percent of 10th graders, and 3.8 percent of high school seniors have engaged in the non-medical use of amphetamine (primarily Ritalin or Adderall) in the past year.

The Greater Dallas Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse has reported that 13 million Americans use amphetamine and other stimulants for non-medical purposes. With overall rates of abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications on the rise, experts are working to educate potential users about the many risks associated with the improper use of amphetamine and other controlled substances.

Dr. Arthur Westover, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center professor who led the study that associated amphetamine abuse with an increased likelihood of heart attack, was quoted in the June 23 Reuters article as emphasizing that the risk is too great to be ignored.

“We’d rather raise the warning flag now than later,” Westover said. “Hopefully we can decrease the number of people who suffer heart attacks as the result of amphetamine abuse.”