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.
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’