The History of Meth: From Hitler to Kerouac
The history of methamphetamine starts with a group of shrubs known as ephedra. These plants, found in many parts of the world, have been used for thousands of years in China, Pakistan, India and the Americas to make teas that help open airways and treat asthma, as well as congestion and cough. In 1887, ephedrine (an amphetamine) was first isolated from the plant. Six years later, methamphetamine was developed from ephedrine, and in 1919 crystallized methamphetamine was first produced from ephedrine using iodine and red phosphorus. Both amphetamine and methamphetamine initially existed without any particular purpose. These concentrated stimulants were applied to a variety of maladies and disorders in search of their function. Eventually, they were used as general pick-me-ups, antidepressants and diet pills. They were also used in World War II to conquer and defend much of the globe.
Nazi leaders distributed millions of doses of methamphetamine in tablets called Pervitin to their infantry, sailors and airmen in World War II. It wasn't just the military that was amping up on the stuff -- Pervitin was sold to the German public beginning in 1938, and over-the-counter meth became quite popular. When supplies ran low on the war front, soldiers would write to their families requesting shipments of speed. In one four-month period in 1940, the German military was fed more than 35 million speed tablets [source: Ulrich]. Though the pills were known to cause adverse health effects in some soldiers, it was also immediately realized that stimulants went a long way toward the Nazi dream of creating supersoldiers. As the war neared its conclusion, a request was sent from high command for a drug that would boost morale and fighting ability, and Germany's scientists responded with a pill called D-IX that contained equal parts cocaine and painkiller (5 mg of each), as well as Pervitin (3 mg). The pill was put into a testing stage, but the war ended before it reached the general military population.
The Nazis weren't the only ones jacking up their soldiers on pharmaceutical speed -- the Americans and the British were also consuming large amounts of amphetamines, namely Dexedrine. The Japanese had developed its own military-grade amphetamine, and when the war ended a large stockpile of the drug flooded the streets of Japan.
After World War II, amphetamine was manufactured, sold and prescribed in the United States and much of the world. By the late 1950s and early '60s, it was becoming harder for the medical community to ignore the growing number of professionals-turned-speed-freaks who had become hopelessly hooked on Benzedrine and Dexedrine. Also, it had been discovered that Benzedrine inhalers (intended for use as bronchial dilators) could be cracked open, exposing a piece of paper soaked in Benzedrine that could then be swallowed for a powerful high. This led to increased American government control over amphetamines -- and therefore to Americans making their own amphetamines.
In the next section, we'll learn that, no matter what controls you put on chemicals, you just can't keep an industrious speed freak down.