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Speed: the story

What links 1960s housewives, Nazi soldiers and a British prime minister? One word: speed. Heres the story of the mood-altering amphetamine and its destructive younger brother crystal meth.

What is speed?

Speed is the most frequently-used name for amphetamines. A Class B drug, the most common form of 'speed' is amphetamine sulphate, which makes users feel alert and energetic while suppressing appetite and reducing the desire to sleep. Other effects include anxiety, paranoia, irritability, twitchiness and insomnia.

60s housewife

In the '60s tired housewives took speed

What's the difference between speed and crystal meth?

Crystal meth (or methamphetamine - to give the drug its technical name) is an amphetamine that is stronger, more harmful and 10 times more addictive than speed. It increases sexual arousal and mental alertness while simultaneously ravaging the immune system. It can be smoked, eaten, snorted or injected; smoking the drug can lead to 'meth mouth' - chronic rotting of the teeth and gums.

Crystal meth is a Class A drug that's massively popular in the US. An estimated three million Americans use crystal meth in the US every week, but until recently, it failed to gain a foothold in Britain. However, it's now being sold on the gay scene and police have discovered illegal crystal meth labs across the UK.

How are speed and crystal meth made?

Both speed and crystal meth are synthesised from ephedrine, which is found in the ephedra bush and commonly used in Chinese medicine.

Setting up a crystal meth lab is relatively simple. Most of the chemicals are easily obtainable from over-the-counter medicines, and it can be manufactured on a stovetop with little specialist equipment. Making the drug, however, can be extremely dangerous due to the amount of toxic gases and flammable chemicals involved.

How long have amphetamines been around?

Although first synthesised in Berlin in 1887, speed didn't leave the lab until the early 1930s when it was sold in asthma inhalers as the decongestant Benzedrine. By 1937, students were using the inhaler to help them stay up and study for exams.

The military instantly saw the speed's potential as a way of combating battle fatigue. During World War II, British soldiers consumed an estimated 72 million capsules.

Crystal meth is an amphetamine that is stronger, more harmful and 10 times more addictive than speed.

Meanwhile, their German counterparts were taking the stronger methamphetamine (later known as crystal meth), marching marathon-style distances one minute and exhausting all their ammunition during collective fits of meth-induced paranoid psychosis the next. Even their leader, Adolf Hitler, was a meth fiend - he was regularly injected with the drug by 'meister jabber' Dr Theodor Morell. To this day, methamphetamine is known as 'Nazi Crank'.

Another national leader fond of amphetamines was British PM Anthony Eden, who admitted to "living on Benzedrine" during the 1956 Suez Crisis. The war had a disastrous effect on Britain's global reputation which, combined with Eden's worsening health, resulted in him being forced to retire a few months afterwards.

What has happened to speed since then?

Amphetamines were still legal in the early 1960s, being used by everyone from truck drivers to tired housewives as a chemical pick-me-up. The 'mother's little helpers' accounted for 3% of all British doctors' prescriptions and were doled out to treat narcolepsy (where patients can't help falling asleep), and as a slimming aid.

However, it was the mod movement that became synonymous with speed - with followers popping, dabbing and snorting the stuff in order to shimmy away all night. As the decade fizzled out, the appeal of speed waned, thanks to the mods' bad teeth and jittery demeanour (direct results of speed abuse) plus the 1964 Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, which outlawed their usage.

Since then the drug has experienced revivals with the 1970s' northern soul and punk movements, and the 1990s' rave scene (where it was known as 'whizz').

Today, speed has a 'poor man's drug' reputation on account of its relative cheapness (8 -12 a gram). However, it's also making a comeback; according to a recent Home Office survey, 400,000 people currently use amphetamines in Britain (33,000 of these use crystal meth).

How does speed and crystal meth reach the UK?

Most of the amphetamines in Britain are imported from the Netherlands or Belgium. On a recent bust, 80kg of amphetamines - with a street value of 1.1m - were found hidden in a consignment of frozen sausages imported from Holland.

Meth has been making its way over from European countries, as it's easier to buy the chemicals needed for its production, but labs are also springing up in the UK.

Are amphetamines still used by the military and doctors today?

As of 2003, dextroamphetamines ('go pills') were still used in the US Air Force to combat pilot fatigue and were suspected of playing a role in the deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. The medical use of amphetamines is limited, confined to Dexedrine (which treats narcoleptics) and Ritalin, used to treat children with attention deficiency disorder (ADD).

Updated: 13/04/2010

Written by Christian Koch

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