Citation metadata

Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Drug overview
Length: 4,359 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Official Names: Amphetamine (am-FETT-uh-meen); Benzedrine (BENZ-uh-dreen)
Street Names: Amp, bennies, pep pills, speed, and uppers
Drug Classification: Schedule II, stimulant

What Kind of Drug Is It?

Amphetamines are stimulant drugs that improve concentration, reduce appetite, and help keep users awake. Stimulants heighten the activity of a living being. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines stimulants as substances that "increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), and steroids are all stimulants. (An entry for each of these substances is available in this encyclopedia.) However, amphetamines have a great potential for abuse. The "high" created by stimulants makes people feel good, but only temporarily. "They may elevate mood," wrote John B. Murray in the Journal of Psychology, but "their effects are short-lived."


Although they were discovered late in the nineteenth century, amphetamines did not receive much attention in the medical community until 1927, when a University of California researcher named Gordon Alles began studying their effects. Alles found that the drugs gave people a lot of energy, allowing them to do more and stay awake longer without getting tired. This effect of "speeding up" people's actions explains how amphetamines eventually came to be known by the street names "speed" and "uppers."

There are several different types of amphetamines. (For more information, see individual entries on Adderall, dextroamphetamine, and methamphetamine in this encyclopedia.) Generally, all amphetamines act the same way: as stimulants.

Early Amphetamines Treat Breathing Problems

The first amphetamine was made in a laboratory by Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu in 1887. The drug was not used for medical purposes, however, until more than forty years later. By that time, scientists were looking to create a drug that would mimic the effects of ephedra, a natural Chinese remedy for asthma. When boiled in water, stems from the ephedra bush produce a tea that helps dilate, or open up, the small sacs of the lungs. The active ingredient in this tea apparently eases breathing in asthmatics who drink it. (An entry on ephedra is also available in this encyclopedia.)

Research on asthma medications led to the manufacture of Benzedrine, the earliest form of amphetamine commercially available. In 1931, the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline, and French introduced the Benzedrine inhaler to relieve the discomfort of nasal congestion due to colds, allergies, and asthma. As Murray pointed out, these first Benzedrine users reported trouble sleeping when they were on the drug. This sparked yet another branch of research on the effects of amphetamines. By 1935, drug companies were marketing amphetamines for the treatment of a daytime sleeping disorder known as narcolepsy. Researchers did not yet realize that amphetamine use could be dangerous.

The ADHD Connection

As far back as 1937, doctors were looking for ways to help children who had problems concentrating. At the time, the condition that is now referred to as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was called "minimal brain dysfunction." Little was known about the disorder, and it was believed to affect only children. Since then, the misleading name "minimal brain dysfunction" has been dropped, and medical researchers have learned more about ADHD and its effects.

ADHD is a disorder that begins during childhood, although in many cases it goes undiagnosed until adulthood. It is very difficult for people with ADHD to focus their attention and control their behavior. Children with ADHD are easily distracted and have difficulty concentrating, especially on schoolwork. They may also talk excessively, interrupt conversations, and have trouble waiting their turn. In many cases, people diagnosed with ADHD display impulsive behavior, which frequently persists into adulthood.

According to the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy's 1972 entry on amphetamines, early use of amphetamines in young patients with ADHD produced surprising results. "Instead of making them even more jittery, as might be expected, the amphetamines calm many of these children and noticeably improve their concentration and performance," commented the authors of the article. The use of amphetamines for ADHD in children and adults continues into the twenty-first century.

Usage Spikes after World War II

During World War II (1939-1945), soldiers used amphetamines to maintain alertness during combat. In the years following the war, many service personnel had trouble functioning without the drug. One major instance of widespread amphetamine abuse occurred in Japan after the war. Much of the country was devastated by bombs dropped during World War II, and the Japanese had to work long hours to rebuild their country. Japanese men who had been soldiers recalled how amphetamines had helped them face one battle after another when the war was in full swing. Demand for the drug increased, and amphetamines were released for sale in Japan without a prescription. This led to a decade of abuse throughout the nation. In the mid-1950s, though, the Japanese government restricted access to amphetamines and passed stricter laws against illegal amphetamine use.

Around the same time, Americans were becoming hooked on amphetamines, too. Users found they could lose weight quickly and effortlessly. Amphetamines quickly earned a reputation as a "wonder drug" that allowed users to work harder without feeling tired. "Pharmaceutical companies encouraged doctors to prescribe amphetamines to depressed housewives in the 1960s," wrote Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen in From Chocolate to Morphine. The drugs were even given to racehorses, since it was thought the drug would make them run faster. Throughout the decade, public health authorities noted a new and disturbing trend in amphetamine use among drug users in San Francisco, California. Individuals, soon to be known as "speed freaks," were injecting liquefied amphetamines into their veins.

Amphetamine use also went up dramatically in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. According to Hilary Klee in the Journal of Drug Issues, "the 'Swinging Sixties' was a period of revolutionary social change and experimentation with psychoactive drugs... 'Pop idols' became major ... influences on British youth. The role models in the United Kingdom were ... young and working class, like many of their fans. Amphetamine was popular among them because it provided the energy to perform all night and survive periods on tour."

The massive increase in drug use in the 1960s prompted countries throughout the world to pass new anti-drug laws and regulations. In the United States, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, which cut down considerably on the production, importation, and prescription of amphetamines. Many forms of amphetamine, particularly diet pills, were removed from the over-the-counter market. But this crackdown on amphetamines led to the development of illegal laboratories in many countries. By the 1990s, illicit amphetamine production had emerged worldwide, with large numbers of illegal laboratories being reported especially in the western United States, the United Kingdom, and eastern Europe. The problem persisted into the early twenty-first century, especially among unemployed youth.

What Is It Made Of?

Amphetamines do not occur naturally; they cannot be grown in a garden or dug up from the ground. Rather, amphetamines are synthetic, or manufactured, substances that consist of the elements carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen.

The chemical structure of amphetamines is related to two natural substances known to boost energy within the human body. Those substances are ephedrine and adrenaline. Ephedrine is a natural stimulant found in the ephedra bush. It is the active ingredient in a Chinese herbal drug that relieves the symptoms of asthma. Adrenaline is a natural stimulant that the human body produces all by itself. It sets off the body's "fight or flight" reaction in times of emergency. When adrenaline is released, heart rate and blood pressure increase, the muscles that control breathing relax, and the pupils of the eyes dilate.

How Is It Taken?

Amphetamines come in both tablets and capsules and are usually swallowed. However, drug abusers sometimes crack open the capsule to get to the flecks of the drug inside it, or they grind the tablets into a fine powder. Amphetamine powder obtained from either method is then inhaled or "snorted." Users also mix it with tobacco or marijuana and then smoke it.

Beginning in the 1960s, some hardcore drug abusers started dissolving amphetamine powder and then injecting it. This process is called intravenous, or IV, drug abuse. When injected, the amphetamine high occurs almost immediately, increasing the danger of addiction. Weil and Rosen described the physical and mental effects of a few weeks of continued intravenous use. Addicts "became emaciated and generally unhealthy," the authors reported. "They stayed up for days on end, then 'crashed' into stupors. They became jumpy, paranoid, and even psychotic."

Many high-dose amphetamine abusers become psychotic, or mentally deranged, after a week or so of continuous use. A disruption occurs in the way their minds function, making it difficult for people suffering from a psychotic episode to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. Users who increase "their dose rapidly to enormous levels ... swallowing whole handfuls of amphetamine tablets" can develop an "amphetamine psychosis." According to the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, this condition makes them feel as if "ants, insects, or snakes [are] crawling over or under the skin."

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

Historically, amphetamines have been prescribed by doctors as an appetite suppressant and as a treatment for both ADHD and a rare sleep disorder called narcolepsy.

Amphetamines tend to decrease feelings of hunger in people who take them, making them an often-abused drug among dieters. Although the use of amphetamines for weight control was popular in the 1950s and again in the 1980s and part of the 1990s, this practice is no longer common. Amphetamine use for weight loss can be very dangerous. Most doctors agree that the best way to regulate weight is through moderate exercise and a healthy diet.

As of 2015, amphetamines were most commonly prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Amphetamines are successful in the treatment of ADHD because they help improve the user's ability to concentrate. In prescription form, amphetamines also have been found to be helpful in treating narcolepsy, a fairly rare condition that causes people to fall asleep quickly and unexpectedly. Amphetamines speed up bodily functions, producing a much-desired feeling of alertness in people with narcolepsy.

Usage Trends

Amphetamine abuse is very widespread and often unintended. Cynthia Kuhn and her coauthors summarized the dangers of amphetamines in their book Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. In a word, the buzz from amphetamines is "pleasurable." Overuse typically stems from the drug's effects. Amphetamines make most users feel good, at least in the short term. Experimentation with amphetamines can get out of hand quite easily, though. Even legal users--those individuals taking the drug with a doctor's prescription--can get hooked.

Not Just a Nasal Spray

Generations ago, over-the-counter nasal inhalers contained amphetamines. The reasoning behind amphetamine treatment for nasal congestions was quite simple: stimulants are known to constrict blood vessels. Constricting the blood vessels in the nose and sinuses cuts down on congestion because it shrinks the nasal tissues, allowing air to flow more freely through the nose. This effect is only temporary, though, and when it wears off, a "rebound effect" occurs. The nasal passages actually end up more severely blocked than they were before the amphetamine was inhaled.

The first users of any new drug are a bit like human guinea pigs. "Because of the incredible complexity of the brain," explained Kuhn, "most drugs that affect it have actions in addition to those for which they were developed." Aside from the problems with the rebound effect, some users of early nasal inhalers "experienced general stimulation from them" as well, wrote Weil and Rosen. "Some got high, and some became dependent." Because of their side effects and the potential for abuse, amphetamines are no longer dispensed in over-the-counter decongestants.

Who's Using Amphetamines?

The results of the 2014 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study were released to the public in February 2015. Conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), it was sponsored by research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Since 1991, the study has tracked patterns of drug use and attitudes toward drugs among students in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades. (Prior to that, from 1975 to 1990, the MTF survey was limited to twelfth graders.)

The 2014 MTF survey found that 4.3 percent of eighth graders reported using amphetamines at least once in the year prior to the survey. The comparable rates for tenth and twelfth graders were 7.6 and 8.1 percent, respectively. These usage rates were highest in the late 1970s and reached their peak in 1981, when 26 percent of twelfth graders reported using amphetamines at least once in the preceding year. That rate then began to decrease on a regular basis until 1992, when they began rising again, not only for twelfth graders, but also for eighth and tenth graders. The peak usage rates for the latter two groups peaked in 1996, after which those rates began to decrease for all three age groups, a pattern that has continued to the present day. The perceived risk and disapproval of using amphetamines by twelfth graders (the only group asked this question) has also increased on a regular basis until it reached a high of 69.0 percent in 2009 and 93.0 percent in 2014 (both for the risk of taking the drug regularly), respectively. Just over 12 percent of eighth graders also reported in the 2014 MTF survey that they thought amphetmaines were "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get, with 25.2 and 44.5 percent of tenth and twelfth graders, respectively, providing the same observation about the availability of amphetamines.

Data for the use of amphetamines by adults are not as readily available as they are for young people. (Much better data are available for one important derivative of amphetamine, methamphetamine.) According to the World Drug Report 2014, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, amphetamine use among adults ranged widely from close to zero in some countries (such as Argentina and Mexico) to a high of more than 3 percent of the population (El Salvador: 3.280 percent) The report noted that estimates for amphetamine use in the United have ranged from 1.60 to 2.20 percent, with 1.90 percent being the most likely number.

A number of researchers have also attempted to create a profile, or description, of a "typical" amphetamine Based on these studies, that individual in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and part of the 1990s was young, white, male, single, and often unemployed. More recent findings cited in the Journal of Psychology in 1998, and in 2007 reports by the National Association of Counties indicate that the population of amphetamine users is becoming broader and now includes:

  • more women
  • more married, divorced, and widowed people
  • fewer whites
  • people of all age groups, from middle school students to retirees.

Effects on the Body

Amphetamines are psychostimulants. As a prescription drug for the treatment of ADHD, amphetamines have been shown to increase performance accuracy, improve short-term memory, improve reaction time, aid in solving mathematical problems, increase problem-solving abilities in games, and help individuals concentrate.

"If stimulants simply increased energy and alertness," commented Kuhn, "they indeed would be [a] miracle medicine... However, these drugs also cause an unmistakable euphoria and sense of well-being that is the basis of addiction." The effect of amphetamines is similar to the effect of cocaine, another widely abused psychostimulant. However, amphetamine highs are generally longer lasting.

Amphetamine users often feel that the drug puts them in a better mood and increases their level of confidence. "It gives me a lot of energy," remarked one user in an interview with Klee. "I can get out and do things, meet people, things like that. And you don't let anything get to you. You're on top of the world."

Amphetamines are often abused by people who want to boost their energy and enhance their physical performance. Athletes on amphetamines may find that they can play longer, harder, and better. Students on speed can endure longer studying sessions and remain focused on their homework for hours, sometimes without even taking a break to eat. Truck drivers who take amphetamines are able to cover more miles without falling asleep at the wheel. But the high generated by amphetamines eventually wears off.

After the Buzz

"A single oral dose of amphetamine usually stimulates the body for at least four hours," wrote Weil and Rosen. After that, more of the drug is needed to maintain the high. Once the buzz of uppers has worn off, users who felt awake, energized, and full find themselves very tired, grumpy, and extremely hungry. A person coming down from an amphetamine high may sleep an entire day away before the drug leaves his or her system entirely.

"Irritability and/or aggression is common when 'coming down' off the drug, when using [it] heavily, and when [it is] combined with alcohol," reported Klee. "You get to the point where you're shouting at people and causing trouble and the amphetamine gives you the energy to do it ... which is a problem," noted one of the users Klee quoted. Such behavior can ruin longstanding relationships and, in some cases, result in social rejection for users.

Addiction and Other Dangers

Long-term amphetamine use can result in a psychological addiction or psychological dependence. Psychological dependence can develop quickly, especially in people who already show signs of depression. As Kuhn put it, "We know that the drive to use cocaine or amphetamine is considerably stronger than that for any of the other addictive drugs."

The use of amphetamines can cause an upset stomach, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, nervousness, weight loss, and insomnia. The drug can also lead users to perform bizarre, repetitive actions. "Assembling and disassembling radios, cars, and gadgets is common among ... users. [They] are aware that their activity is meaningless but report not being able to stop," noted Murray. Higher doses result in fever, an unusually fast heartbeat, chest pain, blurred vision, tics, tremors, and antisocial behavior.

Amphetamines can kill. Prolonged abuse of amphetamines can lead to tolerance. Taking greater quantities of amphetamines increases the chance of an overdose. Signs of an overdose include convulsions, followed by coma, and then possibly death. The cause of death may be from the bursting of blood vessels in the brain, a heart attack, or an extremely high fever.

Laboratory Studies

The National Academy of Sciences revealed in 2003 that exposure to amphetamines can reduce "the ability of certain brain cells to change in response to life experiences." With funding provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Canada and U of M-Ann Arbor worked together, conducting experiments with amphetamines on laboratory rats.

Amphetamine-treated rats seemed confused by changes that were introduced to their surroundings during the course of the testing. Rats that were not given amphetamines, however, had no problems maneuvering around ramps, bridges, tunnels, and toys that had been relocated in their cages. Even after three and a half months, the amphetamine-treated rats were unable to adjust to changes in their environment. Analysis of the brains of both treated and untreated rats showed definite differences in their physical appearance.

These findings correspond with drug experiments conducted by three researchers on human volunteers in 1969. Those experiments, according to Murray, indicated that high doses of amphetamines affect the brain. The volunteers, who were hospitalized for the six-week-long study, experienced wide mood swings that began with euphoria, or a feeling of great happiness, and ended with deep depression. They also went for days without eating or sleeping well, talked nonstop for hours at a time, and showed signs of paranoia before the experiment was concluded.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Amphetamines are dangerous drugs. The dangers increase when they are taken with other addictive substances. Amphetamines are frequently combined with other drugs to prolong or add to the high they produce alone. Caffeine is one substance that is known to add to the effects of amphetamines. When combined with alcohol, "amphetamines have the potential to produce unprovoked, random, and often senseless violence," noted Murray. Amphetamines raise blood pressure, so they should not be taken by people who are on medication to reduce their blood pressure. In addition, the drug should not be taken with over-the-counter cold medications or with certain antidepressant medications.

Treatment for Habitual Users

Tolerance to amphetamines occurs quickly. In an attempt to sustain the high that results from amphetamine use, users often begin taking more of the drug than they should. They then find themselves unable to stop on their own. The withdrawal process can last days or weeks. Besides feeling intense cravings for the drug, long-time users who attempt to kick their habit experience other unpleasant effects. These include extreme anxiety, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, vivid or unpleasant dreams, fever, decreased energy, and depression. Even "long after the withdrawal period, past users may experience urgings and cravings," added Murray. Addiction experts consider behavioral therapy and emotional support essential for the successful treatment and rehabilitation of amphetamine abusers.


Amphetamines can be extremely toxic. When uppers are "used without medical supervision, they are potentially dangerous, even for first-time users," warned Murray. People who are high on amphetamines are more likely to take chances and engage in riskier behavior than they would if they were not high. This increases the danger of becoming infected with HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), which can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), either through unsafe sex or by sharing needles.

Drug abuse among young people is associated with early sexual activity, increased involvement in criminal activities, and higher school dropout rates. Amphetamine users often take other drugs along with uppers. This can increase the likelihood of becoming involved in accidents. It can also contribute to the development of physical, mental, and emotional problems, including high rates of infection, phobias, depression, and suicidal tendencies.

Infants born to mothers dependent on amphetamines have an increased risk of premature delivery and low birth weight. The infants may actually experience symptoms of drug withdrawal. Mothers taking the drug should not breast-feed their babies, since amphetamine is excreted in human milk. A number of studies using rodents as test animals indicate that women should not take amphetamines at all when pregnant.

The Law

Amphetamines are controlled substances: their use is regulated by certain federal laws. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 called for the assignment of all controlled drug substances into one of five categories called schedules. These schedules are based on a substance's medicinal value, harmfulness, and potential for abuse and addiction. Schedule I is reserved for the most dangerous drugs that have no recognized medical use. Amphetamines fall under Schedule II: dangerous drugs with genuine medical uses that also have a high potential for abuse and addiction.

Possessing amphetamines without a medical doctor's prescription is against the law and can result in imprisonment and stiff fines. The length of the jail sentence and the amount of the fine are increased when a person is convicted of a second or third offense of amphetamine possession. People convicted of distributing amphetamines--selling or giving away prescribed drugs--face lengthy prison terms and fines of up to $2 million.

Key Terms

drug-induced feelings ranging from excitement and joy to extreme grogginess
pronounced AZ-muh; a lung disorder that interferes with normal breathing
a rare sleep disorder characterized by daytime tiredness and sudden attacks of sleep
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
a disorder characterized by impulsive behavior, difficulty concentrating, and hyperactivity that interferes with social and academic functioning
impulsive behavior
(sometimes called impulsivity) acting quickly, often without thinking about the consequences of one's actions
pronounced ih-FEH-drinn; a chemical substance that eases breathing problems
pronounced uh-DREN-uh-linn; a natural stimulant produced by the human body; also known as epinephrine (epp-ih-NEFF-run)
intravenous, or IV, drug abuse
injection of a liquid form of a drug directly into the bloodstream
pronounced ee-MASE-ee-ate-ed; very thin and sickly looking
pronounced sy-KOH-sis; a severe mental disorder that often causes hallucinations and makes it difficult for people to distinguish what is real from what is imagined
pronounced SY-koh-STIM-yew-lents; stimulants that act on the brain
psychological addiction or psychological dependence
the belief that a person needs to take a certain substance in order to function
a condition in which higher and higher doses of a drug are needed to produce the original effect or high experienced
abnormal feelings of suspicion and fear
the process of gradually cutting back on the amount of a drug being taken until it is discontinued entirely; also the accompanying physiological effects of terminating use of an addictive drug
extreme and often unexplainable fears of certain objects or situations

"Speed Kills"

The people who made the phrase "Speed Kills" popular were not talking about driving responsibly. The saying was used in the psychedelic era of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was coined by people who saw many of their peers fall victim to intravenous (IV) drug abuse.

Shooting amphetamines directly into the bloodstream is the most dangerous of all methods of use. This is because of the "speed" with which the drug flows throughout the body. The high is almost immediate, the shock to the system is intense, and the results can be deadly. Long-term speed use increases the risk of a drug-related fatality. Users build up a tolerance for the drug, meaning that they need more and more speed to get the same high. Taking higher and higher doses of the drug can lead to overdose and even death.

The phrase "Speed Kills" was not just used by anti-drug activists. It was also popular among drug users who knew firsthand the dangers of amphetamine abuse. The slogan appeared on various mementos of the psychedelic era. The anti-amphetamine message adorned buttons, posters, and even stickers that schoolchildren put on their notebooks.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2646400003