The History of Amphetamine Use

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  • 0:01 Development of Amphetamine
  • 1:04 Amphetamine Use, 1920-1940
  • 3:07 Amphetamine Use, 1940-1980
  • 4:50 Amphetamine Use, 1970-Today
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Amphetamine was developed in the 1800s and is still used for the treatment of certain medical conditions. This lesson traces the history of amphetamine and its use in the U.S.

Development of Amphetamine

What do President John F. Kennedy, jazz musician Charlie Parker, Adolph Hitler and actress Judy Garland have in common? They were all known amphetamine users.

Amphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant drug. It's also known as a psychostimulant drug because it energizes the user's nerves and brain. Amphetamine stimulates certain chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, which, in turn, increase heart rate and blood pressure.

Stimulant drugs, in general, have been popular drugs for years because they produce extra brain activity, increase alertness, improve energy and promote a sense of well-being. Amphetamine was first developed in Germany in the late 1800s, but it wasn't designed to address a specific medical need. In fact, the first developers did not even notice the drug's stimulant effects.

Amphetamine Use, 1920-1940

It was the 1920s before amphetamine was recognized for medical use. That's when medical experts noticed amphetamine dilated breathing passages and was therefore helpful to people with asthma, allergies or colds. This led to different over-the-counter remedies containing amphetamine, such as the Benzedrine inhaler introduced in 1932. This nasal inhaler quickly became a popularly used and widely available drug.

Though the new accessibility also led to our country's first wave of amphetamine-related stimulant use disorders. Stimulant use disorder is a broad term used to describe stimulant abuse, stimulant addiction, stimulant dependency and any other disorder caused by the recurrent use of stimulant drugs. People over-used and misused the first amphetamine medications.

For example, some people would crack the inhalers open and remove the amphetamine strips. They would chew the strips in order to get faster and more intense stimulant effects. Charlie Parker was known for placing amphetamine strips in his coffee during this time, which was also a popular method.

Though amphetamine's harmful effects were coming to light during the late 1930s, new medical uses were employed. Amphetamine in pill form was known as benzedrine sulfate and was approved to treat all kinds of ailments, including:

  • Narcolepsy
  • Low blood pressure
  • Asthma
  • Depression
  • Hay fever
  • Opiate addiction
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD

Keep in mind that ADHD was known as hyperkinetic impulse disorder at the time and was not widely diagnosed. Also, note that amphetamine is still used to treat both ADHD and narcolepsy.

Amphetamine Use, 1940-1980

Now, let's take a look at when amphetamine use really boomed. The use of amphetamine in pill form became quite common among Americans during World War II. Though the amphetamine pills were only available by prescription, it's helpful to note that pharmaceuticals weren't as carefully regulated as they are today. The pills were still widely available. Civilians most commonly used the drug for depression and weight loss, while U.S. servicemen were issued amphetamine tablets for extra energy and stamina. By the end of the war in 1945 - less than a decade after amphetamine pills came on the market - the U.S. consumption rate was more than two tablets per person, per year.

Use of amphetamines continued to rise throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Pharmaceutical companies marketed new concoctions that combined amphetamine with sedatives. These pills were touted for calming anxiety without causing drowsiness and for promoting weight loss while also addressing emotional overeating.

The Food and Drug Administration reported that, by 1962, there were likely over 200 million amphetamine pills in circulation in the U.S. But the federal government was beginning to take action. New studies confirmed that amphetamine was addictive and could cause psychotic episodes. The amphetamine inhalers were re-categorized in 1965 to be sold only through prescription, meaning that all amphetamine was now prescription-only.

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