The labels change, the game remains the same

Today’s New York Times has a huge feature on the illicit use of stimulant drugs like Ritalin and pharmaceutical amphetamines in colleges and schools by kids ‘seeking an academic edge’.

The piece is written like an exposé but if you know a little about the history of amphetamines, it is also incredibly ironic.

The ‘illicit stimulants for study’ situation is a complete replay of what happened with the branded amphetamine benzedrine in the 1930s, as recounted in Nicolas Rasmussen’s brilliant book On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine.

Benzedrine had a legitimate medical use. It acts as a bronchodilater, opening up the airways to the lungs, so it was prescribed for people with asthma.

In the mid-1930s, it was also being tested as a way of increasing intelligence test scores with promising results, both in British adults and in American children.

But, unsurprisingly (it is speed after all) it became popular for party people wanting a recreational high, and students wanting increased focus and energy, who concluded through their own informal tests that it could help with study.

In 1937, none other than the The New York Times ran a story about benzedrine calling it a ‘high octane brain fuel’ and noting that without it the brain ‘does not run on all cylinders’. It was clearly pitched as a cognitive enhancer.

Shortly after Time magazine ran a story specifically on how it was being used by college students to cram for final exams.

Suddenly, there was a boom in students using benzedrine, leading the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Asociation to condemn the press coverage for promoting the widespread use of drug, as previously its use was a niche activity.

The warnings did little good, however, and speed has remained a massively popular study drug ever since.

Here’s an article from the 1948 Harvard Crimson, a full decade later, warning of ‘Benzedrine-Soaked Crammers’. And here’s another from a 1965 edition of same publication, almost two decades later warning of studying with benzedrine ‘pep pills’. Here’s the 2004 version: ‘Students Turn To Drugs To Study’.

So the story isn’t really new but it’s ironic that the New York Times has inadvertently promoted the activity. Again.

Link to NYT article Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill’

5 thoughts on “The labels change, the game remains the same”

  1. While reporting may be repeating itself, I doubt there will be the same explosion in usage as the 1930s. I only recently graduated and I can assure you that no one on any of the campuses I’ve attended needed a NYT expose to inform them about these drugs. Everyone who would use them, already is. At least in the states anyway.

  2. @ Marcy: I would have to disagree. There will always be those who were aware of such use but skeptical of it. Stories like this boost the credibility of the effectiveness of using amphetamine as a study enhancer. Whether or not there will be a significant increase in such use remains to be seen, as amphetamine prescriptions are much more tightly controlled than they were in the 30’s.

  3. Drinking black coffee should provide enough caffeine to stimulate the brain, I would think. Taken without milk, coffee will supply anti-oxidants,too.

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