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In China, since the time of the Han Dynasty, a plant called ma huang, meaning yellow hemp, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. In 1885 the plant derivative ephedrine was isolated from ma huang by Ngagyoshi Nagai. Amphetamine, one of a series of compounds related to ephedrine, was first synthesised in 1887 by Lazar Edeleanu. China began industrial manufacture of ephedrine in the 1920’s and exported over 200 tonnes to the West in 1928.
In the early 1930s the American Medical Association approved the use of amphetamine marketed under the name Benzedrine for treatment of a range of disorders including narcolepsy, depression, Parkinson’s and alcoholism. Benzedrine also became known for its side effects of alertness and feelings of wellbeing. It was often mentioned by Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg as fuel for their all night gatherings and late night writing. Soon after the arrival of Benzedrine, methamphetamine was introduced to the market under the trade name Methedrine.
Amphetamine’s effects – creating alertness and fighting fatigue – were exploited by both the American, German and Japanese military during World War II. The US continued to give amphetamine to soldiers during the Korean and Vietnam wars. As recently as the 1991 Gulf War, over half of the US pilots involved admitted to substantial use of stimulants to stay awake for long stretches.
What are amphetamines?
The term amphetamines refer to a group of synthetic drugs that are all chemically related to amphetamine and are classified as stimulants. Stimulants impact a user’s central nervous system, speeding up the messages going between the brain and the body. This produces a similar effect to the naturally occurring hormone, adrenalin.
Methamphetamine comes under the same chemical family as amphetamine but has a more aggressive effect on the central nervous system, creating a longer and stronger effect. Crystal methamphetamine, which is highly purified methamphetamine and is the most potent form of amphetamine, is commonly referred to as Ice.
Some types of amphetamines are legally prescribed by doctors to treat conditions such as narcolepsy (which is a neurological sleep disorder) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
What do amphetamines look like?
Amphetamines may be in the form of a powder, tablets, capsules or crystals. The powder is most commonly close to white but can be yellow, brown or pink. It normally has a strong pungent smell and is bitter to taste.
Crystal methamphetamine (Ice) can range from large, clear-coloured crystals through to a crystalline powder.
How are they used?
Amphetamines are generally snorted but can also be swallowed, smoked or injected. Ice is most commonly smoked or injected and often very small amounts can create strong effects.
What are the effects?
The effects of any drug vary from person to person. Factors that influence an individual’s experience include their weight, size, mental health and whether they are used to taking the drug. However, there is no safe level of drug use and amphetamines can range broadly in quality and safety.
If amphetamines are snorted, smoked or injected the effects are felt almost immediately. If swallowed they may take up to 30 minutes.
Low to moderate doses
Immediate effects may include:
- Increased talkativeness
- Feelings of euphoria and excitement
- Increased motivation and confidence
- Nervousness, anxiety, agitation, panic
- Teeth grinding and jaw clenching
- Irritability, hostility, aggression
- Repetition of simple tasks
- Increased breathing and heart rate
- Reduced appetite
- Increased sweating and body temperature
- Reduced need for sleep
- Difficulty sleeping
If a person takes more amphetamines than their body can cope with it can lead to overdose. There is greater risk of unwanted side effects or overdose if the strength or purity of the drug is not known. Injecting increases the risk of overdose due to the speed at which the drug enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain.
A higher dose of amphetamines can intensify the effects listed above and also may include:
- Blurred vision
- Irregular breathing
- Rapid pounding heart
- Violent or aggressive behaviour
High doses and frequent heavy use can create an ‘amphetamine psychosis’. The symptoms may include paranoid delusions, hallucinations and bizarre, aggressive or violent behaviour. The person concerned may become extremely distressed and unpredictable. These symptoms usually disappear after a few days if the person stops using amphetamines; however, medical intervention may be needed at any stage.
As the effects of amphetamines begin to wear off, a person may experience a range of effects. These effects can last for several days and may include:
- Radical mood swings
- Exhaustion and a desire to sleep heavily
- Feeling restless, irritable and anxious
Long term effects of amphetamines may include:
- Chronic sleeping problems
- Malnutrition and weight loss due to reduced appetite
- Reduced immunity
- Dental problems from jaw clenching and teeth grinding
- Increased risk of stroke
- Depression, anxiety, tension and paranoia
- Cumulative stress on the heart leading to increased risk of heart problems
- Psychological problems such as poor memory and concentration
Tolerance and dependence
There is evidence that amphetamines, especially Ice, can become highly addictive. People who use amphetamines regularly can develop tolerance and dependence to it which means they need to take larger amounts to get the same effect. Dependence on amphetamines can be psychological, physical, or both. It can be very difficult to stop using.
Whilst a dependent person’s body becomes used to functioning without amphetamines, they may experience feelings of withdrawal. This may include:
- Cravings for amphetamines
- Confusion and poor concentration
- Depression, anxiety, agitation
- Extreme fatigue and exhaustion
- General aches and pains
- Hunger and increased appetite
- Disturbed sleep
- Mood swings
- Little energy, increased apathy and the limited ability to experience pleasure