Like cocaine and heroin, amphetamines were sold in mass quantities during the first half of the twentieth century. Once such compound, Dexedrine, rose to prominence as a diet pill during the 1950s and remains legal, though strictly regulated, to this day. It is, however, frequently cited as an analog to illicit methamphetamines, giving it a somewhat tarnished reputation.
When the pharmaceutical company Smith Kline & French (SKF) introduced a nasal inhaler form of amphetamine called Benzedrine in 1932, it was hailed as panacea capable of curing anything from migraines to premenstrual syndrome to colic. Seventeen years later, SKF attempted to patent a similar compound, although its application was rejected on the grounds that it was virtually identical to Benzedrine.
The company released the product dextroamphetamine, which was branded by SKF as Dexadrine, in the hopes of scoring another commercial hit before the formula for its highly profitable Benzedrine lapsed into the public domain in 1949.
Despite some initial skepticism about Dexedrine's viability in the marketplace, SKF was shocked to watch sales of the drug take off in 1945. Though amphetamines were typically used to treat depression, once consumers discovered the weight-loss side effects of Dexedrine, its use as a diet pill skyrocketed. Between 1949 and 1952, it brought SKF an average of $5 to $6 million in sales per year. By 1955, that figure would double.
Vietnam and Changing Perspectives
From the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. military purchased mass quantities of Dexedrine directly from SKF. That would change once a congressional inquiry into drug abuse among American forces in Vietnam revealed that the Navy, Army and Air Force all dispensed their soldiers an average of 800 mg of Dexedrine a year between 1966 and 1969. One veteran went so far as to tell Congress that the pills had been dispensed "like candy."
In 1971, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs used new legislative powers to make all amphetamines Schedule II drugs and, by 1975, were enforcing a 400-million-per-year cap on their production. SKF, by then the world's largest commercial manufacturer of the drug, was hardly hit---not only by the increased regulation, but also by further congressional pressure and a rash of negative press coverage as well. By the end of the year, Dexedrine had dropped off the company's list of best-selling products.
Today, dextroamphetamine remains an available, though somewhat taboo, prescription drug. As such, once the treatment of hyperactivity in children with amphetamine compounds began in earnest in the 1980s, doctors passed over the drug in favor of newer drugs, such as Ritalin or Adderall. Nonetheless, the active ingredient in both of those medications is exactly the same as that of Dexedrine and Benzedrine.
- On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine; Nicolas Rasmussen; 2008
- Before You Take That Pill; J. Douglas Bremner, M.D.; 2008
- Writing on Drugs; Sadie Plant; 1999
- Photo Credit "Pretty Pills" is Copyrighted by Flickr user: DraconianRain (D R) under the Creative Commons Attribution license.
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