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On Speed: Ten Strange Facts About the History of Stimulants

From meth to ecstasy, the class of drugs known as amphetamines has gained enormous popularity in recent decades. But they've been around for more than a century—and used in some truly weird ways.

24 Substance

When we think of methamphetamine, we think of Breaking Bad, the bizarre Scott Weiland doppelganger bust and the house next door that blew up from a meth lab gone awry. (Seriously, that happened at the house next to mine this summer.) But those are all recent things, and that is how we tend to see meth—as a recent scourge on society. In fact, meth and other amphetamines—the name refers not only to a specific drug but to an entire class of stimulants—have a much longer history than you might expect. Here are 10 quick and dirty facts that tell the story of this feisty family.

1. Amphetamine was invented in 1887 by Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu. Coincidentally, in that same year, another drug in that class—ephedrine—was discovered by a Japanese scientist named Nagajosi Nagai, who isolated the chemical from ma huang, a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine. Researchers realized that ephedrine causes pupil dilation and so initially the Japanese used it for eye examinations. By 1910, they understood some of the drug’s other possible medical uses, including its potential for treating asthma.

The most potent member of the amphetamine family, methamphetamine, was discovered by Japanese researchers in 1893 and made into a crystallized form in 1919. What makes meth so strong? Chemistry lessson: The chemical structure of the amphetamine class of drugs—including meth, ecstasy and an assortment of “club drugs”—consists of the following: a carbon ring, a carbon chain, a methyl group and an amine group consisting of a nitrogen and two hydrogens. If you take amphetamine (C9H13N) and add a methyl group consisting of one carbon and three hydrogens you get methamphetamine (C10H15N). This one methyl group turbocharges methamphetamine because it can pass through the blood-brain barrier more easily and hit the brain with more active ingredient.

2. Just as meth and its related stimulants weren’t created by researchers in search of a drug that would make you more energetic, powerful and confident, the invention of ecstasy wasn’t the result of a search for a drug that made you feel more love. Ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912, by Anton Kollisch, a scientist at the pharmaceutical company Merck in the process of developing a new blood-clotting drug. One of the compounds he experimented with was colorless oil that boiled at 331 degrees Fahrenheit, becoming a white crystalline powder. Merck patented it as methylsafrylamin; today we call it MDMA (methelenedioxymethamphetamine).

MDMA sat on a shelf at Merck until 1927, when another Merck scientist did the first pharmacological tests in the process of looking for an ephedrine-like drug that would dilate the pupil. Although MDMA’s effects were described as “remarkable”—it was three times as strong as ephedrine—it was passed over because it didn’t make your pupils much bigger.

3. The medical uses—and stimulant effects—of amphetamines were not discovered by the Western world until 1929, when US biochemist Gordon Alles began studying the activity of beta-phenyl-isopropylamine, aka amphetamine. He was looking for a better-than-ephedrine decongestant and bronchodilator. In 1932 Alles patented his discovery of two medicinal oral amphetamine salts. Simultaneously, the drug company Smith, Kline and French patented the base form of amphetamine and began marketing it as a Benzedrine Inhaler. Then the company made Gordon Alles a rich man when it bought his patent for the salts in order to begin selling the chemical in convenient pill form. Soon the list of diseases this new pill could “treat” began growing, starting with narcolepsy, Parkinson’s and depression. But it was only gradually, starting in 1935, that patients began reporting what came to be the most marketable amphetamine effect: that speeeedy feeling.

4. Soldiers on both sides used amphetamines during WWII. The US military supplied 5 mg Benzedrine tablets to its pilots for nighttime firestorm bombing of German-occupied cities and other aviation. The Brits fed it to their troops, too, while the Nazis and the Japanese went for slightly stronger stuff.

German soldiers were supplied with an “alertness aid” known as Pervitin, a brand name for methamphetamine. Military doctors also handed out doses of speed in the yummy sweet form of Fliegerschokolade, or “flyer’s chocolates,” and Panzerschokolade, or “tank chocolates.” (Perfectly in keeping with the fast, powerful “blitzkrieg” approach to warfare.) But meth use didn’t stop on the battlefield. It went all the way to the top. Hitler’s personal physician, Theodore Morrell, gave the Fuhrer, a lifelong hypochondriac (among many other diagnoses), a shot of Pervitin whenever he needed a lift. By the time of his suicide in his Berlin bunker in 1945, Hitler had become a human drug dumpster, taking everything from meth to barbiturates to testosterone to cocaine to opiates to bull testicle extract to a gun cleaner preparation.

5. In the postwar years, as pharmaceutical companies were marketing methamphetamine as an over-the-counter remedy for sleepiness, Japan developed a huge meth problem as its military stockpiles were funneled onto the black market. By 1948, Japanese physicians estimated that around 5% of Japanese youths (ages 16 to 25) were using meth. Use only began to drop in the 1950s when it was outlawed with harsh penalties (and, presumably, wartime stocks ran out).

6. Although Benzedrine was first marketed for nasal congestion, it quickly became popular with writers and intellectuals—and not just those with stuffy noses. The poet W.H. Auden—who wrote “Funeral Blues,” the poem featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral—took Benzedrine every morning for 20 years. Novelist and screenwriter James Agee, sci-fi great Philip K. Dick, and political thriller master Graham Greene all relied heavily on the stuff as well. (Nothing ratchets up the suspense like amphetamine-induced paranoia.) French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used a European amphetamine product called Corydrane to write his 650-page Existentialist bible Being and Nothingness, while Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös used Benzedrine and Ritalin to produce his lifetime record of over 1,500 articles.

While many creative types liked taking their speed in pill form, others—like Beat poet and writer Jack Kerouac—preferred to break open Benzedrine inhalers, which contained more of the drug than the tablets did. Famously, Kerouac wrote On the Road in a mere three weeks on a single teletype role in his typewriter while on Bennies. The book was released in 1957, three years years before Benzedrine inhalers followed in the footsteps of Benzedrine pills and became prescription-only.

7. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, biker gangs were a dominant force in US meth distribution. In the ‘80s Mexican cartels took over. They established so-called Superlabs in California, but in the ‘00s, as the US began to restrict the legal purchase of pseudoephedrine—the most important precursor for making meth—most of those labs were relocated to Mexico. Between 2000 and 2004 sales of pseudoephedrine—the active ingredient in cold medicines like Sudafed—quadrupled in Mexico. Since it is unlikely that Mexicans had insanely bad nasal congestion for four years straight, experts connected the increase to an increase in methamphetamine manufacture. As a result, Mexico began regulating pseudoephedrine, forcing the cartels to switch to a new pseudoephedrine-free recipe. (Known as the P2P process, this is the same meth-making method used in Breaking Bad.) Today, Mexican cartels make around 80% of the meth sold in the United States.

8.  Alexander Shulgin, a medicinal chemist and psychopharmacologist who died in June at age 88, introduced MDMA use to the Western world in the 1970s. In 1976, the Berkeley professor was researching MDA, an amphetamine in recreational use at the time, when a colleague told him about the action of MDMA. Fascinated, Shulgin tried the drug and then introduced it to a psychiatrist friend named Leo Zeff. Zeff loved the drug so much that he put off his retirement to spread word of its psychotherapeutic potential to thousands of patients and therapists across the country. (MDA has more stimulant and psychedelic effects, and fewer empathic effects, than MDMA.) Shulgin’s role in this popularization, along with his co-authoring the first paper on the human pharmacology of MDMA, has earned him the counterculture title “Godfather of Ecstasy.”

9. Like most drugs, amphetamines have had a colorful and varied history of slang nicknames. One of the best known names is actually a misnomer, however. Although it has been referred to as “Mother’s little helper,” the Rolling Stones’ 1965 song by the same name is actually about a tranquilizer, most likely Valium, which was then in its heyday: “And if you take more of those/you will get an overdose/No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper/They just helped you on your way/through your busy dying day.” The confusion may be explained by the fact that amphetamine had been prescribed to Mother and many other American women to help them “watch their weight” since the late ’30s.

Other nicknames in use around that time include black bombers, black beauties and pixies. Today, the amphetamine street nomenclature has diversified as the variety of amphetamines on the market has increased. For prescription pills, you’ll hear names like Diet Coke, Addies, Dexies, Vitamin R, Rids and study buddies; for meth you’ll hear ice, glass, Tina, Crystal, shaboo, shiznit, tweak, shard and batuna.

10. You can still get methamphetamine by prescription. While it is commonly known that massive amounts of amphetamines are prescribed in the form of ADHD drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin—including to kids as young as 2 and 3—it is less commonly known that a doctor can write you a scrip for meth. Sold under the brand name Desoxyn, methamphetamine can be prescribed for narcolepsy, ADHD and obesity, although many pharmacies do not carry it.

As for ecstasy, it was made illegal in 1985 under the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which gave the DEA the “emergency” power to ban drugs. A year later, the emergency ban was replaced with a permanent one, and today ecstasy remains a Schedule I substance. Although unavailable by prescription, X is increasingly showing therapeutic benefits as a treatment for people with PTSD, anxiety, depression and other conditions. The FDA may approve its use and doctors may be writing prescriptions for it in a decade or two.

Keri Blakinger is a recent Cornell University graduate and current staff writer for the Ithaca Times. She blogs at Her previous piece for was about 10 startling facts about the history of cocaine.