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A-Z of Drugs


'A' is for Amphetamines

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson
Amphetamine, known colloquially as ‘Speed’ and its close relations such as Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth) are sometimes described as ‘power drugs’.

Such stimulants are often reported to heighten aggression, reduce fatigue and diminish the ability to feel love and human warmth. Such stimulant effects were unknown to the Romanian chemist who first synthesized it in 1887. As a substance it remained ‘on the shelf’ until it underwent a re-branding in the 1930’s when it was sold as ‘Benzedrine’, primarily as an inhalant decongestant. Other formulations were variously tried out as remedies for obesity, low blood pressure, low sex-drive, chronic pain and perhaps more obviously to counter narcolepsy.

As ‘lights went out of Europe’ in the late 1930’s and the world was plunged into a world war, amphetamine became of interest to the armed forces on both sides. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had previously used the rather aptly named ‘Wakey-Wakey pills’ for some time – a caffeine based product. In late 1940 a report was commissioned to look into the use of drugs as a possible performance enhancement tool. Combating fatigue and sharpening responses were considered to be important. The report argued that compared to caffeine, amphetamine may not actually improve the body’s mental and physical capabilities, but on the other hand subjects felt more confident, maintained effort and did better on tests. Some historians have even argued that amphetamine won ‘The Battle of Britain’. In reality it was in Bomber Command rather than Fighter Command where the drug was considered most effective. Escorting convoys over the Atlantic Ocean was vital for the war effort, but was exhausting and tedious work. The Spitfires and Hurricanes pilots already had plenty of adrenaline pumping through their veins during their brief sorties against the Luftwaffe.

By the end of the war the allied forces had consumed some 72 million tablets.

When the world returned to calmer times in the 1950’s and 60’s amphetamine was used as part of the make-up a new range of ‘pep pills’. In the United States they were commonly consumed among particular groups who were targeted by the powerful marketing men of Madison Avenue and sold over-the-counter. At the same time doctors were strongly encouraged to prescribe a ‘rainbow of pills’ , to help athletes, artists, truckers and housewives alike through their various troubles and challenges.

Back on home soil in 1964, Raifiu Ojikuto, a 26-year-old Nigerian medical student living in Ballsbridge, Dublin became the first person in the history of the State to be arrested on drugs charges. The arrest was for made for possession of ‘Purple Hearts’ (amphetamine stimulant tablets), although he sadly died before he could stand trial. The Irish Times covered the story with a headline that seems wildly naive looking back from the viewpoint of 2019. It simply read :

“DRUG HABIT UNLIKELY to grow here”

As the swinging sixties were left behind in the turbulent times of the 1970’s, Amphetamine sulphate, or ‘Speed’ played a major part in the development of the musical phenomenon of ‘Punk Rock’. The new music was fast and furious, and its’ drugs were too. If you were into The Clash or The Sex Pistols then the peace-loving hippy music of the 1960’s and a certain fondness for cannabis was a distant memory. When people still hit the floor today to dance to the perennial Soul favourite ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, few perhaps realise that the band was named after a brand of amphetamine based pep-pills.

The drug is a strong stimulant and as such generally makes users feel alert, energised and excited. They often report that it gives them the energy to do things for hours on end without getting tired, such as dancing and talking. Amphetamine can also however make users feel agitated or panicked, some may get very aggressive. There are also cases where users have experiences delusions or gone through psychotic episode. The possibility of an overdose, given its strong stimulant nature, is also a clear risk. During the last decade nearly 700 people in the UK have unfortunately passed on in this way. Irish figures are more difficult to obtain as they are grouped together with other stimulant drugs such as cocaine or MDMA.

The use of Amphetamine continues to the present day continues across a wide range of formulations, including medications for ADHD. ‘A’ could just have easily stood for ‘Adderall’. Medicating young people where the diagnosis has a subjective element will always be controversial and even more so when the base of the medication is a substance with a chequered history. It’s certain that some reviews of clinical stimulant research claim to have established the safety and effectiveness of long-term continuous amphetamine use for the treatment of ADHD. The product was found to be effective in reducing the core symptoms of ADHD (i.e., hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity), and improving their  quality of life and academic achievement.

This has in turn encouraged others to use ADHD medication when they have no such diagnosis. The use of larger daily doses poses an increased risk of dependency issues arising due to the pronounced reinforcing effects that come with the use higher does. It also means that users area at a far greater risk of suffering serious adverse effects.

Amphetamines use has been with us now for over a century. The ways that they have been used by humans has certainly been varied. In common with many other drugs their use in the ‘legitimate’ context is often highly controversial, whilst illicit or ‘recreational’ use brings a whole new raft of problem above and beyond its ‘therapeutic’ uses.

This article was written by Neil Wilson, Education support Worker with the WRDATF.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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