The Amphetamine Explosion

From the July 21, 1969 issue of New York Magazine.

“Savages. Look at ‘em. They’ve turned into savages.”

The cabbie, driving through the East Village, is talking about a group of our young New Yorkers who used to be cursed for their interest in love, peace and flowers.

“Buncha savages, these kids today.”

Where have all the flowers gone? Whatever happened to hippies, Yippies and the marshmallow-eyed mystics? What changed them is not politics. It is not the military-industrial complex, too much money or the long, hot summer—though it’s a silent partner to all these. It is beyond pot, LSD and alcohol. It is a change of drug.

Amphetamines—or speed, ups, stimulants, diet pills—are science’s latest contribution to the turn-on generation. These little pills are quietly building toward the next major drug explosion in America.

In communal enclaves like the East Village, amphetamine is already the No. 1 drug. It has left LSD in the dust. A restaurant on Second Avenue once known as The Eatery is now fondly called The Speedery. Hell’s Angels grew up on speed. It is a staple of motorcycle gangs now in residence in the East Village.

Speed has a paradoxical effect. In a peaceful country, like Sweden, it brings out the hedonism. In a violent country (or city, like this one) it activates the violence. Metropolitan-area doctors find that during withdrawal, for instance, users are just as likely to be homicidal as suicidal.

But the appeal of amphetamine extends beyond the young and beyond the Village. Eight billion amphetamine tablets are officially produced in the U.S. annually, enough to supply 40 doses to every man, woman and child. The drug is distributed to widely diverse groups of people. With little publicity, often by doctor’s prescription, amphetamine is spreading like a new fluoride in the national water supply. On college campuses the promise of excitement and sexual prowess is spreading the mystique of methamphetamine, taken by injection. Other enthusiasts range from ambitious business executives, tired housewives, artists and writers who order a year’s supply at a time so that they can work through the nights, to infantrymen in Vietnam who are issued it for long patrols, to football players who are alternated on ups (amphetamine) and downs (barbiturates), depending on which reaction is called for by the score. Couples often live through a divorce on it. General practitioners rely increasingly on amphetamine to treat overweight and mildly depressed patients, as well as alcoholics and drug addicts. The GP can keep his patients moving through his office fast and returning for more. The patient may need referral to a psychiatrist, but a happy pill will placate him. Amphetamines are helpful to all these people: they do lift the mood, curb the appetite and energize the body. The problem is control. The communications media and the courts devote much time to settling the problem of marijuana. Yet marijuana use is a peccadillo compared to the known dangers and frightening potential of mass stimulant abuse. Psychologically, amphetamines are the most dangerous of all the ill-used drugs—including heroin.

This is the gist of concern being expressed, here and in England, by doctors. The great debate is: does the medical value of amphetamine outweigh the dangers of abuse and dependency? Sweden has already banned all amphetamines; they cannot even be used therapeutically. West Germany, Switzerland and Austria have withdrawn a series of slimming drugs, derived from amphetamines, after describing a link between them and disturbances in heart rhythm as “the most serious affair since the Thalidomide tragedy.” In Japan the amphetamine epidemic spread in the wake of World War II. By 1954 an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Japanese—almost all under 30—were habituated to amphetamine. The authorities took dramatic action.

While controversy flares behind doors of national medical meetings and in board rooms of drug companies, parents try to cope.

Parents hear speed kills. Like the parents in the story which follows, they think this means that a very dangerous drug named speed causes the criminal user to die of overdose, convulsions, etc., which it often does. But speed is not a clean bomb. Speed maims. It disorganizes the personality. An average person has a minor weakness of character. At most, under normal stresses of life, it would be called a neurosis. But under amphetamine it balloons into a major psychosis. On top of this, the usual requirements for satisfaction in life are completely replaced by artificial stimulation. Eventually the energizing effect of amphetamine goes into reverse. Life becomes more disorderly, surroundings more squalid, but the user loses the ability to recognize this. Not only does he stop trying to return to reality, he believes he is in contact intellectually—in fact, more in contact with life than anyone else. These people are the silent victims among whom amphetamine dealers do their highest volume of business.

Parents are generally unaware of how often young people use the stimulant drugs now: intravenously, by injection. Beginning with diet pills they may find in their parents’ medicine cabinet, or with the standard prescription of 15 mg. of Dexamyl handed out liberally by college health services for “mild depression,” they find that by taking more than the prescribed three pills daily, they feel even more than euphoric. They have eureka experiences:

“Prolonged periods of thinking about the meaning of life … intense religiosity … later degenerating into delusions and the compulsion to analyze a variety of details to find meaning,” describes the British Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Sensitivity to what others think or feel is lost.

Moving on to injection, users shoot melted pills or liquid “Meth” [Methedrine]. The veins constrict. The body’s metabolism is jolted into high gear, blood forces through the tightened vessels, and euphoria hits the brain almost immediately.

In New York one shot of Methedrine sells for about the same street price as heroin—$5 a bag. Penalties for amphetamine abuse are much lighter than those for heroin; many heroin addicts have, in fact, gradually switched. This is due to the game of semantics:

Amphetamine is legally classified a “dangerous drug” but not a narcotic. Abusers are called “habitués” rather than addicts. Amphetamines are not physically addicting, but tolerance does occur, requiring a user to increase his dose. Semantics. As medical research indicates and every user knows, the big problem shared by all pleasure-giving drugs is the same: dependency. Or, as a rehabilitated speed user says: “It’s okay until you shoot. Then it might as well be heroin.”

Dr. Donald B. Louria at Cornell University Medical College in New York is a widely published authority on drug abuse. Amphetamines are being introduced at such young ages that Dr. Louria writes about the subject in pediatrics journals. Speaking at Boston Children’s Hospital, he traced the correlation between amphetamines and the demise of the hippie movement:

“This [psychic and physical] energizer could not be rationalized as consistent with the hippie ethic of peace and expansion of the individual’s inner world. Instead, it represents a drug taken solely for kicks by a subculture increasingly populated by thrill-seekers, psychopaths, angry sociopaths and young persons who find themselves incapable of functioning in our society.”

The results of amphetamine abuse around the world are almost standardized by now: bizarre behavior, elaborate sexual fantasies, striking changes in females who were frigid, sudden marked increase in sexual deviations and extreme masochism, fear and terror reactions (more common than depression), hepatitis, weight loss—and, finally, paranoid psychosis. Or simply, paranoia. Speed makes people behave as though they are crazy. And, in fact, anti-social and schizoid personalities are attracted to amphetamine more than they are to other dangerous drugs.

Sweden had an experience with amphetamine that has something to say to New York. In 1965 Stockholm alone had an estimated 3,000 users. Medical authorities decided stimulant abuse was a medical disease, rather than a psychiatric problem, as it is considered in the U.S. They would treat it by maintenance therapy. Habitués were given virtually unlimited amounts of the drug. They supplemented this with their old black-market supplies, increased their own dosages and sold the rest to new users. Paranoid psychosis among the maintained users increased enormously. Two years later, Stockholm’s amphetamine habitués doubled to 6,000. The experiment was declared an “unmitigated disaster.” Sweden banned amphetamines.

The paradoxical effect of amphetamine makes it even more dangerous to New York. Here, as on campuses in revolt or anyplace young people gather where worship of the eureka experience runs high and faith in America runs low, amphetamine is becoming a god. It has no Leary; it makes no pretense of having a high priest. Cops have Mace. Kids have speed.

Parents find amphetamine abuse very difficult to spot. They can be easily conned. Doctors have difficulty with the diagnosis. It takes months for an amphetamine “addiction” to show its ravages.

Amphetamine is like a Christmas package with a time bomb inside.

The Amphetamine Explosion