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On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine
by Nicolas Rasmussen
NY University Press 
Reviewed by David Bey, 12/23/2011

In 1929 an independent chemist named Gordon Alles, working on his own time in the back of an allergist’s shop in Los Angeles, took a self-administered dose of a newly synthesized chemical compound. As its possible effects were unknown, he sat back to observe and record the results. The compound would later come to be known as “amphetamine” and this experiment would be the first time a human being had gotten high on speed. What happened next, as they say, is history—and it’s a colorful history to say to the least, with a far greater reach than many would expect. As for what the history of amphetamine was, is and continues to be, interested parties are enthusiastically directed towards Nicolas Rasmussen’s excellent book On Speed.

Since its invention, speed has gone on to make fortunes, win wars, change cultures and exert considerable influence on our very definitions of mental health. As Rasmussen writes in his introduction: “Ultimately, this book is about the way age-old human fantasies of magical cures and elixirs of youth live on in the age of science-based pharmaceuticals. It is about the place drugs have come to occupy in our culture, and the role they play in medicine. It approaches these general questions through the remarkable and unique history of amphetamine, or ‘speed’ as it has long been known colloquially.”

There’s a lot to learn in reading On Speed. Amphetamine was the first drug to be prescribed as an antidepressant, breaking the ice on the entire concept of applying chemistry to disorders of the mind and emotions. However, when it initially made its appearance, nobody had any idea what to do with it. It had been discovered by tinkering with the molecular structure of adrenaline, which was then the new big thing in American pharmacology. Adrenaline was among the first of a whole new generation of medicines whose discovery was made possible by advances in organic chemistry. At the time, it was the only significant medicine with any scientific credibility discovered by an American firm, setting off a hormone “gold rush” in the industry. Amphetamine’s inventor had hoped it could be used as a synthetic alternative to adrenaline, which at the time had to be extracted from animal glands.

Amphetamine was first tested to see if it was useful as anti-asthma medication. It wasn’t. Taking enough of it to help with asthma caused nausea and palpitations, although everyone thought it was an exhilarating experience. Following this there was some hope it could be used to treat menstrual pains. It couldn’t. Giving it to women suffering from menstrual cramping proved to have no effect on their cramping whatsoever, but the women on whom it was tested cheerfully reported that somehow their otherwise difficult days just seemed to fly by. What its creators eventually discovered was that almost everybody who tried it liked it rather considerably. Whatever test, whatever trial they were subjected to, those who took it found that they enjoyed it rather a lot, and often somehow wanted more. The chemists behind it knew they had a potential hit on their hands, if only an actual medical condition could be found that amphetamine would treat. In this way it was among the first of a whole new kind of drug, the product of scientific research managed by business practice—a “drug in search of a disease”, whose fate would be to cycle through a great run of rises and falls as different uses were found for it depending on what people wanted to find.

Smith, Klein and French, the company to whom amphetamine’s patent had been sold, distributed samples to doctors across the country, urging them to try it out on their patients and see if anything turned up. They gave it to hospitals and encouraged the staff to see if there were any ailments it could fix. In a time-honored tradition it was experimented with on medical school students, who soon learned that the stuff was wonderfully useful in staying up late and cramming for tests. As reports began trickling in that of all the conditions it seemed to treat, the best was one that didn’t quite seem to exist yet—depression. Whereas amphetamine’s success was poor in combating the sort of physiological ailments normally treated by adrenaline and its ilk, what it did seem solidly successful at was improving and elevating mood. The great innovation ushered in by the invention of amphetamine was the idea that drugs could be used to directly influence the mind. Influencing the mind, chemically, would shortly become big, big business.

Among the most interesting things to learn in On Speed is the peculiar history of the way that the medical concept of depression and amphetamine seem to have grown up together. As an understanding grew that patients suffering from inexplicable fatigue, chronic malaise, marked reduction in drive, or simple unhappiness could have these “symptoms” reduced by amphetamine, the pharmaceutical companies behind the new medicine invested considerable resources into supporting and encouraging research into the concept of mood disorders as medical conditions, a strategy amounting to “selling the drug by marketing the disease”. Across the country advertisements filled medical journals, suggesting that doctors explore amphetamine as a treatment for “anhedonia” or lack of pleasure in life, a condition that few previous had even perceived as a “condition” at all. Within two decades the effects of amphetamine on the brain would become built into the medical establishment’s very understanding of depression as well as the baseline point of departure for almost all depression-related research that was to follow. Depression, it would seem, has in a very loose sense come to be defined as whatever it is that taking amphetamine makes go away.

This is the story that Rasmussen is the most interested in telling. “The story of amphetamine encapsulates America’s love affair with pharmaceuticals”, he writes, and does not shy away from exploring what that love affair says about the nature of the culture doing the loving. Interesting as well is the fact that across the globe, amphetamine seems to have been a mirror for the values and hopes of whoever tried it. Americans appreciated it for the “pep” and “verve” and “get up and go” it gave them. The British on the other hand seemed to feel no such thing, reporting instead that it made them feel calm, collected, witty, “right as rain”, and so forth. Used by Germans it seemed to produce feelings of great “joy in work”. This observation Rasmussen finds important, because as the relationship between amphetamine and humans deepened in any given culture, its use would become more and more prized for making the user feel more like how they were “supposed” to feel.

Interesting stories abound in On Speed. One chapter, “Speed and Total War”, traces the role of amphetamine (and its slightly more methylated cousin, methamphetamine) during World War II. When the Nazi armies rolled their Panzer tank divisions across the forests and fields of Belgium and France, the blitzkrieg shock troops were hopped to the gills on methamphetamine tablets. Over 35 million such tablets were consumed by the German army during the first months of the war. This trend was eventually discontinued (especially after reports started rolling in of episodes such as an entire German infantry company firing all their bullets into thin air in the course of a mass hallucination that they were under attack), but by that point, the Allies had caught on and were issuing their men Benzedrine by the bucketful. The war was going to be won by the awake, and the Allies, even as the Germans troops were showing evidence of spun-out breakdowns, decided they could not afford to lose a “drug race”. The combined Allied militaries invested heavily into research attempting to demonstrate that speed improved reflexes, aided performance, and steadied trigger fingers. It didn’t. The research showed that while everyone felt like their performance was greatly improved, this feeling was largely subjective, and unsubstantiated scientifically. Once again, amphetamine didn’t seem to do any of the miraculous medical things that the army hoped it might, but the men liked it. It made them happy to be fighting. It made long, hard, terrifying missions fun. By the end of the war the British alone had ordered over 72 million doses (making a fortune for Smith, Klein and French back in the States).

Another thoroughly entertaining chapter, “Bootleggers, Beatniks, and Benzedrine Benders”, covers the impact of speed during the war years on culture back home, particularly in the jazz underground and drop-out American literary scene. The range Rasmussen demonstrates in his research here is impressive, departing significantly from the annals of patent law disputes and corporate marketing records to spend some quality time with crazed bop poets in the throes of protracted typewriter abuse and horn players blazing through musical jam sessions where the cracked and spent Benzedrine inhalers covered the floor of the studio like snowflakes. Later chapters cover the role amphetamines played in the decline of the 1960s-era counterculture, as the hippy and freak cultures typified by the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene collapsed under the influx of amphetamine abuse, and the inevitable downers epidemic that followed.

Again though, the stories and relationships in which Rasmussen seems to be most invested, and which he teases out in the greatest detail, concern the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that speed itself seemed to direct the evolution of culture in the United States—the culture of the American medical community, if nothing else. The Second World War certainly helped legitimize amphetamine use, as millions of soldiers returned home having tried and liked it. Additionally, while America’s fighting men were abroad, doctors at home had been steadily prescribing it to many of the women left behind for the gloom and anxiety associated with their men’s uncertain fate. Moreover, with the close of WWII came the beginning of the Cold War, a cultural landscape dominated by the specter of the atom bomb. For the first time in history, life as it was known could be ended at any moment with the touch of a button, and the pressures and disorders of an increasingly globalized planet were bearing down on a population finding itself increasingly in danger of being replaced by technology and driven by consumerism. It was under these conditions that amphetamine really took off. Anxiety was in the air, and the marketing departments promoting amphetamine were cranked up in high gear: convincing doctors to explain to patients that feelings of dread, uncertainty, and apprehension could all be managed by use of a prescription pad.

Indeed, among the more salient and interesting aspects of amphetamine covered in On Speed are the phenomena of its addictive properties. In particular, Rasmussen’s analyses are sly and elegant when it comes to exploring the way in which the addictive properties of amphetamine extended far beyond the individuals consuming it. As doctors’ offices filled steadily with patients whose prime complaints were emotional, psychosomatic, or basically sociological—a set of complaints rising steadily with the bloom of the Cold War and the ravages of a culture obsessed with conformity and consumerism—family doctors throughout the 1950s and 1960s found themselves turning in increasing numbers to amphetamine prescriptions to deal with such patients. This, as Rasmussen observes, was because of the way “...amphetamine beautifully suited the interaction between general practitioners and their distressed patients, the needs and expectations each brought to the short office visit”. It could therefore be argued that “...vast numbers of physicians also needed amphetamine every day, to deal with their patients’ psychosomatic complaints and distress caused by problems of living. In this sense, the American medical profession was itself addicted to amphetamine.” [emphasis mine]

If the medical profession could be argued to have become addicted to amphetamine (or, perhaps more profoundly, addicted to the very idea that failure to achieve happiness or social adjustment is a medical matter), then even more heavily addicted to amphetamines would be the pharmaceutical corporations producing them. Throughout the entire length of On Speed, Rasmussen collects a panorama of evidence for the ways in which the drug industry has coaxed, coerced, and manipulated medical research and practice, profoundly influencing the modern history of mental health in their efforts to sell speed. The more evidence started coming in that the drug they were pushing was potentially addictive to the consumer, the more such evidence was obscured or repressed by a drug industry itself heavily addicted to the profits such consumer addiction was generating.

As with all addictions, be they personal, professional, social, or cultural, what goes up must come down. The final chapters of On Speed cover the inevitable crash, beginning in the mid 1970s, resulting from decades of increasing over-prescription and abuse. By the time amphetamine abuse became a visible enough social problem to occasion legal censure, the ripples spreading out from it had mutated in numerous directions. On the one hand (as mentioned above), widespread usage of stimulants is invariably soon accompanied by even more widespread usage of downers and depressants—amphetamine over-use predicated first the barbiturate, then the opiate epidemics that followed. Additionally, by the time serious restrictions were placed on the ability of legitimate physicians to prescribe amphetamine, an enormous market and demand had been opened up. This demand, in part, would be filled by the arrival of methamphetamine, whose relatively simple manufacture found it spreading like wildfire across the country to this day. Moreover, even after its suppression by law enforcement, as well as its replacement as the mood-disorder medication of choice by a new generation of SSRI antidepressants (drugs whose developmental parameters had already been set by amphetamine itself), still now some decades later amphetamine has returned in a major way, this time targeted no longer at the housewives and businessmen of the 1950s, but at the distractible, increasingly overwhelmed children of the 1990s and 2000s. More Americans are prescribed amphetamines or amphetamine-like drugs than were even at the height of the epidemic of the 1970s (a fact which Rasmussen points out may well be a contributing factor to the current national explosion of prescription opiate abuse).

Readers of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire will find it hard to read On Speed and not be reminded of Pollan’s argument that even as humans have cultivated, domesticated, and engineered other species for human use, those species have exerted their own considerable influence in return. This would seem to be as true of populations of plants as it is of populations of pills. While amphetamines have enabled individuals to live up to cultural expectations such as ambition, optimism, and drive, they have also cemented such expectations, exerting a powerful influence over culture by contributing to the idea that it is a medical problem when people, for whatever reason, fail to keep up with the pace, drive, or affect expected of them. It’s here that Rasmussen concludes his exploration of speed, focusing on the social and cultural conditions under which drug use has exploded and the drug industry has flourished—a culture in which the expectations placed upon the human individual are increasingly at odds with the parameters of human health. It’s an interesting topic of speculation whether the acceleration of culture has occasioned evermore widespread uses of speed, or vice versa. In all likelihood it is a case of parallel evolution, with each subject contributing to the conditions under which the other is shaped. Throughout human history, the evolution of our species has been intertwined with that of our plant and animal “allies” (as well as “enemies”). Starting perhaps as early as 1828 with the first organic chemical synthesis of urea, a whole new stratum of intensely potent entities—that is, populations of pure synthetic molecules—have been added to the forces affecting our evolution. If there is a lesson here, it may well be that the faster we race ahead, the harder it is to see or control where we are going. For a well crafted history and critique of the ongoing evolution of that “speed” with which we are plunging forward, and the chemicals that fuel and are fueled by it, we have Rasmussen to thank for his educational, entertaining, and ultimately troubling book.

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