The United States of Amphetamines: How America Fell in Love with Speed

By Julia Beatty 06/07/17

Amphetamines are helpful to some and harmful to others, and part of the problem is in determining who will fall into what category.

Syringe full of pills with American flag on top
The use of Amphetamines has a long history in America with applications as varied as combat, dieting, or academia.

Amphetamine, the stimulant that can often allow a user to work harder, study longer, and sprint farther, has had a long run in American history that shows no sign of slowing down. From its early days as an inhalant to the rise of controversial pharmaceuticals like Adderall and Vyvanse, amphetamine has changed form while maintaining a constant place in American society.

Although amphetamine was first synthesized in Germany in 1887 by chemist Lazăr Edeleanu, the first pharmaceutical amphetamine, Benzedrine, was marketed in the United States in 1933 as an inhaler for sufferers of bronchitis and other lung ailments. Benzedrine was quickly discovered to be a euphoric and easy high, especially if the tube was broken open and the drug-soaked strip inside was trimmed and swallowed like tabs of acid.

The stimulant’s effects did not go unnoticed by physicians, and soon Benzedrine was developed as a tablet and prescribed to patients with narcolepsy, depression, or general lethargy. The United States military caught on to this seemingly miraculous drug, and reports of soldiers being given Benzedrine to help fight sleep, as well as the enemy, began around this time just as Hitler’s army was being supplied methamphetamine

Soon after the war, a number of everyday Americans were taking Benzedrine, or “bennies,” to regularly get high. The Beat Generation certainly did, allowing Jack Kerouac to compose his famous novel On the Road in just two or three weeks. But you didn’t have to be a wandering poet like Kerouac in need of creative inspiration to want legal speed- you could simply be an American woman in need of a quick fix for weight loss to get a prescription for novelty ‘diet pills.’

In addition to Benzedrine, doctors began to prescribe “Dexedrine” (or Dextroamphetamine) to these women, handing them bottles of this precursor to Adderall because of how drastically the pills could reduce one’s appetite.

It did not take long before Dexedrine would gain a Benzedrine-like following as users were bursting with energy well after dinner was served (without dessert) and ‘Mom’s diet pills’ became a coveted item. Popular culture would reflect this fact with slang terms like “black beauties,” “speed,” and “Dexys” all entering the American lexicon, while the pills remained largely unregulated until 1970. Women losing weight from doctor prescribed pills helped amphetamine usage increase and become normalized in American culture- a place from where it has never really diverged.

Amphetamines even reached The White House, as “Dr. Feelgood,” also known as Dr. William Hurwitz, was one infamous ‘prescriber to the stars’ who would become the Kennedy family physician. Hurwitz was rumored to not only have supplied JFK with amphetamines, but to have injected them into the ambitious president himself-- especially while John was challenging Americans to push their own physical limitations and hike for 50 miles.

Shortly thereafter, in 1965, the FDA banned Benzedrine inhalers and made amphetamines available by prescription only after noting their addictive nature.

And although substituted amphetamines like Ritalin were first introduced to America in the 1950s, it was not until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that their popularity would truly soar, as they became the go-to treatments for Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder.

Adderall, a mixture of several amphetamine salts, was introduced to the market in 1996 specifically as a treatment for ADHD, and perhaps most controversially, quickly became a commonly prescribed drug for children suffering from the disorder.

While plenty of Americans credit Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, and similar medications with successfully treating their children's condition, there also remains the reality that many children are being overprescribed.

This issue appears somewhat uniquely American as countries like China and France don’t believe in the prevalence or severity of ADHD, and disagree with the American way of treating it. Instead, they cite America’s problems with over-prescribing pharmaceuticals and stress the trouble with giving children prescription amphetamines, typically refusing to diagnose anyone - young or old- with the disorder.

Those who believe that legal amphetamines can create more harm than good are not without merit, as authors like Elizabeth Wurtzel (of Prozac Nation and her addiction memoir More Now Again) recall the cocaine-like effects of Ritalin and Adderall, considering them to all essentially be the same drug.

These pills are helpful to some and harmful to others, and part of the problem is in determining who will fall into what category. Another problem is being able to ascertain what classifies as necessary medication, and what constitutes a full-fledged amphetamine addiction.

In More Now Again, Wurtzel writes that “There is a special kind of denial that is completely postmodern, something that only awareness of addiction - whether its via public service campaigns or from seeing Betty Ford interviewed by Larry King - can produce: the nondenial denial….So you start to have people like me, people who say, I am an addict and I like it, try and stop me.”

This sense of self-awareness about her addiction to stimulants, yet refusals to stay clean, is something echoed by How To Murder Your Life author Cat Marnell, who was first prescribed (and began abusing) amphetamines in high school by her psychiatrist father. She writes in her gripping memoir about the devastation caused by her Adderall addiction, saying “…Eventually I gave up: on sleeping, on self-control, on my career, on myself. I gave up on all of it. I just fucking gave up.”

Adderall and its pharmaceutical cousins can certainly be found on high school campuses nationwide, as in the case of Ms. Marnell, but they are unsurprisingly even more popular in college. The idea of consuming amphetamines to finish your essay or cram for a final exam may seem to be a reflection of The Adderall Era, post-1996, but this phenomenon actually spans a much longer time frame.

In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s roman à clef from 1963, she recounts her own college experience where "I thought I would be way ahead when college started at the end of September, and able to enjoy my last year, instead of swotting away with no makeup and stringy hair, on a diet of coffee and Benzedrine, the way most of the seniors taking honors did, until they finish their thesis."

Plath describes her peers taking Benzedrine in order to finish their work- the same love affair that today’s college students have with Adderall or Ritalin when in need of some scholarly motivation, over half a century later.

Adderall abuse is on the rise but it’s not just in academic settings anymore as young people entering the workforce feel the need to take an extra ‘perk’ in lieu of, or with, their morning coffee. Many casual users are not aware that even occasional amphetamine use may rewire the brain, or they have decided that the trade off – like boosts of energy, loss of appetite, and extreme focus – is worth the potential damage.

This problem is not actually limited to the United States, though, as countries like England, Ireland, and Wales have also seen climbing numbers of stimulant abuse in recent years.

The BBC estimates that between 2007 and 2013, the use of ADHD drugs in England increased by as much as 50% as university students, desperate to get high marks, or to just get high, create a demand for these “smart drugs.” Attitudes towards ADHD are also changing overseas, accounting for the commonality of prescription Ritalin and Vyvanse (or “Elvanse” as it is known in the UK), as well as the softer, more accessible study drug “Modafinil.”

Adderall itself remains an unlicensed, Class B substance in the UK; but, as many university students can attest to, it is readily available on the dark web, despite some occasional shortages.

The internet has worsened the American (and now: European) dependence on amphetamines, but nothing distracts from the issue quite like the lethality of the opioid crisis in this country. As that epidemic takes precedence as a national emergency, America’s “need for speed” remains a lesser problem that is somehow more ingrained in our culture, yet sits quietly in the back of the medicine cabinet, waiting to be unsealed.

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Julia Beatty is a college student from Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter.