Meth has an interesting and exciting history. Forms of it have found it’s way through ancient China, a science labs in Japan, the Mormon community and even to the battlefields of World War II.
First, let’s go back in time and talk about Ma Huang.
Long, long ago — nearly 5,000 years. The Chinese came across a rare herb called ma huang (or Ephedra). They used this herb in drinks to treat the common cold, coughs, asthma, headaches and more.
This herb has also has the ability to reduce fatigue, improve your mood, help with weight loss and even cause menstruation in women. It’s even been used by athletes to enhance their performance and has since been banned by the United States Olympic Committee.
Ma huang (ephedra) was the foundation for Amphetamine, Methamphetamine and cold medicines.
1885: From this plant, a guy name Nagayoshi Nagai (a Japanese Organic Chemist) extracted ephedrine in 1885. This would be the first step in producing many of the common cold medicines we know today — and as a result, production of methamphetamine.
1887: Lazăr Edeleanu (a romanian chemist with Jewish origin) first synthesized amphetamine (phenylisopropylamine) in Germany. Amphetamines are similar to methamphetamines. While they hold more medical value than methamphetamines, they too are addictive.
What’s the difference between amphetamines and methamphetamines? There is only one molecule that separates these two compounds, but the difference is important. (source) Methamphetamine doesn’t have the same effect on your heart that amphetamines do. When methamphetamine enters your body it breaks down into amphetamine — giving reason to why many of the side effects are similar. (amphetamine.com)
As you can see, the history of methamphetamine goes hand in hand with amphetamines.
1893: In 1893, the chemist Nagayoshi Nagai comes back on the scene and synthesizes methamphetamine from ephedrine. (Note: dates vary from 1893, 1895 and 1898)
1919: Methamphetamine was first made into a crystallized form in 1919 by Akira Ogata. Akira was a Japanese Chemist who synthesized the crystallized form from red phosphorus (the chemical found in match strike strips) and ephedrine. This was likely the discovery that made mass production of methamphetamine easy. This crystal form made methamphetamine injectable.
1927 – 29: While working on another compound, Gordon Alles unknowingly re-discovered what Edeleanu had back in 1887. Out of this experimentation came amphetamine sulfate and amphetamine hydrochloride. In 1929, he began experimenting on himself and later on asthma patients with little success.
Gordon Alles was the first to name these drugs, amphetamines. (source)
1930s: The pharmaceutical company, Smith, Kline and French (SFK) put on the market an inhaler made with amphetamine, called Benzedrine. It was offered in the form of an inhaler. The goal was to treat asthma, hay fever and the common cold. (source)
1932: Gordon Alles was smart. In 1932, he obtained a U.S. patent on amphetamine sulfate and amphetamine hydrochloride. The same year, Alles partnered with the pharmaceutical company, Smith, Kline, and French (SKF) in the hopes to use their resources to help his research.
Their partnership paid off. And in a big way.
In fact: This was probably the most single important event that set off the amphetamine industry. They were the ones responsible of bringing it to the public’s attention. They influenced almost every part of society from college students, soldiers to depressed housewives and truckers. (source)
Up to this point, SKF and Alles product was used mostly for “mood and energy” enhancers and there was little research on it’s addictive quality. Think of their advertising in the same way you might see advertising for energy drinks today.
1934: SKF bought the rights to Gordon Alles amphetamine.
1936: A study done by University of Minnesota explored the idea of using amphetamines to assist college students focus on school work. Charles Bradley, a psychiatrist experimented on some mentally disabled boy and found some improvement in their emotional stability. It’s use is similar to Ritalin and Adderall (both of these are amphetamines.) (source)
1937: SKF puts out a new product, Benzedrine Sulfate in pill form, similar to their original Benzedrine Inhaler. The goal? Improve your mood and help with sleep disorder. Because of it’s goal and marketing message to give “a sense of increased energy, mental alertness, and capacity for work.”, prescriptions were likely given with little reservation. Benzedrine Sulfate was essentially the first prescription medicine to treat depression. (source)
At this point, amphetamines takes an even more significant role with the advent of World War II.
World War II Period
1939: Germany caught the attention of America and Britain when they gave their soldiers methamphetamines under the name Pervitin. Pervitin is said to be part of Germany’s success in their military Blitzkrieg strategy. This was later discontinued by the Nazis because of the negative side effects and its addictive nature.
The Japanese version, Philopon/Hiropon was also used on soldiers for energy. It may have also been used for their infamous kamikaze attacks. (source)
1940s – present: The Allied Forces begin their own research of drugs for use in warfare to help with mood and fatigue among soldiers. By 1943, soldiers were given Benzedrine pills in their emergency packs. Amphetamines are still used in the American military today.
1943: Abbot Laboratories requested FDA permission for use of methamphetamine for purposes of narcolepsy, depression, postencephalitic Parkinsonism, chronic alcohol, cerebral arteriosclerosis and hay fever.
1945: 15% of fighter pilots during WWII were said to have been on Benzedrine at one time. Nicolas Rasmussen, a historian of science and medicine, estimates that over 750 million Benzedrine pills were produced per year during this time.
1947: FDA approves methamphetamine for weight loss purposes under Hydrin and Desoxyn. (source)
1946 – Post World War II: After World War II, Japanese suffered from intravenous methamphetamine abuse. This caused an epidemic affecting approximately 2% of Japanese adults. This was due to an over abundance of military supplies being opened to the public. (source) Philopon, Japan’s medical amphetamine version, was sold at reduced price to many Japanese by the company Dainippon Pharmaceuticals. (source)
1950s: Methamphetamine (Meth) was used to treat Korean War Veterans who were addicted to morphine. Methamphetamine was made publicly available for non-medical use to students, trucker drivers as Methedrine. This wide spread availability lead to abuse and laid the foundation for more abuse when injectable methamphetamine became more available in the 60s. (source)
1951: The Japanese Ministry of Health banned meth (source).
1954: Despite the ban on Meth in Japan, meth related crimes still rose. Japan put harsher penalties for meth in place. (source)
1955: Japan begins in a campaign against drug abuse and also raids methamphetamine labs. During this time, the materials to make meth are also highly regulated. (source)
1955 – 1970 (Vietnam War): Americans soldiers used more amphetamines during this period than the whole world did during WWII.
1959: The FDA bans Benzedrine and other off-brand inhalers because of abuse. (source) Users found they could open up the device and get a high off the drug found inside.
1960s: Another form of amphetamine was advertised as an antidepressant called Dexamyl. It was a popular “uppers” among professional athletes. Injectable methamphetamine was also made widely available until the 1970s and the Controlled Substances Act.
Note: “Upper” is another term for “Stimulant.”
The mid-1960s also brought a shift in thinking toward drug abuse in general. This is seen by the events throughout the 60s leading up to the 70s with the Controlled Substances Act was signed. This was in part due to many “speed freak” stories. We also see the (source)
1962: The FDA estimates that eight billion amphetamine pills were produced per year. Worry of the illicit use of the drug began the rise. (source)
1965: Allen Gingsberg, an American poet, begins advocating against the use of amphetamines. He is quoted as saying, “Speed [meth] is antisocial, paranoid making, it’s a drag, bad for your body, bad for your mind.”
FDA begins to clamp down on the drug through better record keeping and rules on prescription use, but it was largely ineffective. (source)
1970s: The 1970s an increase of using “uppers” and “speed” was seen in the “hippie” community. The production of amphetamines also increased no thanks to motorcycles gangs like Hells Angels. It was generally made from the pool chemicals, phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. This precursor was later put under federal control in the 80s. (source)
1971: The Controlled Substances Act was signed in 1971 and made amphetamine a Schedule II controlled substance. This basically meant, that while it had some medical use it was at high risk for abuse.
1980s: Producing methamphetamine became easier in the mid-1980s and meth abuse came back in earnest. (source) Counselors see an increase of abuse cases in men in the homosexual community. (source)
Late 1980s – Mexican brothers, Jesus and Luis Amezcua look overseas for a direct source of ephedrine, bypassing normal methods of meth production.
1990s: Commercialized by Mexican Cartels, concentrated primarily in California. By this time, the Amezcuas were responsible for about 80% of meth brought into the United States. (source)
1996: The government puts stricter requirements on the sale of precursors used in making Methamphetamine with the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act. Materials like red phosphorus, hydrochloric gas and iodine had to be used only for legal purposes. (source)
1997: An Estimated 5.3 million Americans have tried methamphetamine in their lifetime according to the NHSDA.
1992 – 2005: An increase of methamphetamine admissions into treatment centers was noted. During this period, it was reported that more than 40 admissions of meth (per 100,000) in one state to 18 states for this same rate.(pbs)
2005: It was noted that the drugs Ritalin and Adderall which are both amphetamine drugs reached the same prescription use that medical amphetamines did in 1969. (source) This use in 1969, was coincidentally also right before the 1971 Controlled Substances Act.
This same year, a survey by the National Association of Counties found that 58 percent of law enforcement officials across 500 counties claimed that meth biggest drug problem. In a wider survey by the National Drug Intelligence Center, it was shown that 40 percent of law enforcement considered meth abuse the leading threat. (pbs)
2007: President George Bush allocates budget to help crack down on meth production. He also transferred budget dollars from the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program to the Justice Department. He drew criticism for this. This budget also drew dollars away from small, community focused programs that fought the meth epidemic. (pbs)
The history of meth is indeed long and interesting. From the fields of Asia to the battlefields of World War II, we’ve learned the impact of methamphetamine and it’s twin, amphetamine.
In the right circumstances, it can be put to good purpose. Unfortunately, unless it’s use is closely watched by a doctor, meth abuse and addiction is likely.
If you or a loved one struggles with meth addiction, don’t wait to get help. It can be step of courage to admit you need help, but it’s only by taking that first step you can begin your journey to recovery.
Also, check out our other article, What is Methamphetamine (Meth) for more information on this drug and how it works.