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Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine
by Mick Farren
Feral House 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Arnson, 12/20/2011

Mick Farren’s career as a poet, author, musician, and rock journalist spans over 40 years. With Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine (I’m not sure of the title’s significance; is that like ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’?), he delivers a terrific book on just about every aspect of the notorious substances, amphetamine and methamphetamine. Cut into the shape of a giant Dexedrine capsule, this paperback is packed start to finish with all manner of fascinating facts and anecdotes.

First synthesized in 1887, amphetamine went through several refinements before it ended up being available to the masses as the addictive inhaler in 1932, prescribed in the millions for relief of more than 39 medical conditions from hiccups to schizophrenia. In 1937, a pill form of Benzedrine (‘Bennies’, in street slang) was released to the public. It was quickly embraced by truckers, students, factory workers, and musicians, to name several types of modern users. Hollywood became notorious for giving speed to child stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The Nazis famously prescribed Pervitin (methamphetamine) for their soldiers during their blitzkrieg takeover of Europe, and Hitler had a personal doctor shooting him up with speed (and a few other ‘health’ chemicals) throughout his political career. Farren does a great job detailing the use of amphetamine-type stimulants in modern warfare, from WWII onward. By the late 1950s, commercially available speed (now bearing trademarked names such as Desoxyn, Dexedrine, Methedrine, and Durophet, to name a few) had infiltrated all levels of society from housewives to entertainers such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Even President John F. Kennedy had a personal “Dr. Feelgood” who accompanied him as part of his entourage.

The author presents an excellent account of how the influx of speed helped destroy the “good vibes” of the Haight-Ashbury scene and how the Hell’s Angels co-opted underground methamphetamine production and distribution for years. From the late 1960s to the early ‘70s, this motorcycle gang had a notorious lock on the speed trade in Mexico, the USA, and Canada. It was not unusual for dubious chemicals or toxic impurities to show up in their batches. Farren also accounts in vivid detail how the suppression of the speed trade has always been problematic. After the feds banned phenyl-2-propanone (P2P or phenylacetone, a starting material for amphetamine and methamphetamine production), cookers moved on to using the commonly available—and as it turns out, more powerful—ephedrine. When ephedrine was finally banned for commercial use a few years back, they moved on to the even more widely available cold medicine, pseudoephedrine. Aside from controls on starting materials, the busting up of the Hell’s Angels speed trade in the late 1970s left a hole in demand that the insuppressible Mexican mafia was quick to fill. In 2006, authorities busted what was the largest meth lab in history in an industrial zone of Guadalajara; it was capable of producing hundreds of pounds of meth a day. And so it continues…

One interesting point that the author makes, as devil’s advocate, is that law enforcement and the media have always had a field day with describing the ‘meth menace’. The most extreme or exotic stories are sensationalized, from “meth orphans” to the creeping use of amphetamine’s plant cousin, the Yemeni shrub khat (Catha edulis). While speed does have the potential for great personal or societal harm, the author brings attention to how some of the propaganda against its use brings to mind the same over-the-top tactics that Prohibition-era official Harry Anslinger used to criminalize cannabis.

Farren has some good sections on meth’s manufacture, its relationship to MDMA, and its function and dysfunction in the world of sex. Additionally, the book is full of personal anecdotes from Farren’s career as a British rocker playing in “punk-before-there-was-punk-rock” bands.

Frankly, I had no idea that the subject material would be so interesting, but I would now definitely recommend this book as an invaluable look into the world of all things amphetamine-related. Also, kudos to Mick for mentioning Now, go, quick, pick up this book, hurry, faster, faster

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