Friday, April 11, 2008

Pg. 99: Nicolas Rasmussen's "On Speed"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Nicolas Rasmussen's On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine.

About the book, from the publisher:
Uppers. Crank. Bennies. Dexies. Greenies. Black Beauties. Purple Hearts. Crystal. Ice. And, of course, Speed. Whatever their street names at the moment, amphetamines have been an insistent force in American life since they were marketed as the original antidepressants in the 1930s. On Speed tells the remarkable story of their rise, their fall, and their surprising resurgence. Along the way, it discusses the influence of pharmaceutical marketing on medicine, the evolving scientific understanding of how the human brain works, the role of drugs in maintaining the social order, and the centrality of pills in American life. Above all, however, this is a highly readable biography of a very popular drug. And it is a riveting story.

Incorporating extensive new research, On Speed describes the ups and downs (fittingly, there are mostly ups) in the history of amphetamines, and their remarkable pervasiveness. For example, at the same time that amphetamines were becoming part of the diet of many GIs in World War II, an amphetamine-abusing counterculture began to flourish among civilians. In the 1950s, psychiatrists and family doctors alike prescribed amphetamines for a wide variety of ailments, from mental disorders to obesity to emotional distress. By the late 1960s, speed had become a fixture in everyday life: up to ten percent of Americans were thought to be using amphetamines at least occasionally.

Although their use was regulated in the 1970s, it didn't take long for amphetamines to make a major comeback, with the discovery of Attention Deficit Disorder and the role that one drug in the amphetamine family—Ritalin—could play in treating it. Todays most popular diet-assistance drugs differ little from the diet pills of years gone by, still speed at their core. And some of our most popular recreational drugs—including the "mellow" drug, Ecstasy—are also amphetamines. Whether we want to admit it or not, writes Rasmussen, were still a nation on speed.
Among the acclaim for On Speed:
"Rasmussen, who has taught life sciences and medicine at UCLA and other universities, examines amphetamine as a case study on the place drugs occupy in our culture and our fantasies (of miracle cures and elixirs). The story begins with chemist Gordon Alles's creation of amphetamine in 1929 and continues through its use for weight loss, attention deficit disorders and today's crystal meth craze. Smith, Kline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline) bought the rights for use of the drug and marketed it to treat depression. During WWII, British and American soldiers developed an amphetamine appetite as RAF medics distributed wakey-wakey tablets to bomber crews. At the book's core is an outstanding chapter, Bootleggers, Beatniks and Benzedrine Benders, describing how Benzedrine inhalers, available without a prescription, could be cracked open for a totally new kind of amphetamine experience, exerting a potent influence on music and literature, from Charlie Parker to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Rasmussen has mined magazines, books and newspapers in addition to extensive explorations through U.K. and American archives. He concludes by calling for strong and immediate action to curb the widespread, dangerous use and abuse of amphetamines, emphasizing treatment and harm reduction (like needle exchange) rather than punishment, and better regulation of the pharmaceutical industry."
Publishers Weekly

"Rasmussen documents America's eighty year love affair with amphetamine and its various permutations. Monumental in scope and research, the book traces the history of this seductive drugs uses for a myriad of illnesses when the true sickness may be inherent to our unique American society. Given our current extraordinary use of this drug, On Speed is an urgent and necessary read.
—Lawrence Diller, M.D., author of Running on Ritalin

"I've been waiting for a book on amphetamines for years and On Speed delivers. Crammed full of eye-popping detail, it brings the history of this extraordinary group of drugs and their effect on American culture vividly to life."
—David Healy, M.D., author of Let Them Eat Prozac

"A magnificent work: measured, thorough, strong on both the technical details and the larger socio-cultural and ethical issues surrounding the development, marketing, and distribution of these dangerous mood-altering drugs. Rasmussen has dug into the medical literature and available archives to find new information on every aspect of the process by which amphetamines were invented, patented, and twinned with various 'disorders.' Rasmussen' s book is a must-read."
—Robert A. Nye, Professor Emeritus, Oregon State University

"On Speed deftly captures amphetamine's impact on medicine, culture, and society. Rasmussen lays bare the decades-long attempts to employ amphetamine to gain strategic advantage on the battlefield, wage war against depression and attention deficit disorder, fight weight gain, counteract boredom, and seek thrills in everyday life. Along this journey, we learn about the dysfunctional American policies that failed to adequately address the toll amphetamine took on countless lives. As the title promises, Rasmussen's account tracks the many manifestations of amphetamine from the 1930s to today in intricate and fascinating detail, from miracle drug to public enemy, a trajectory filled with lessons for the future."
—John P. Swann, Historian, Food and Drug Administration
Read an excerpt from On Speed, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Nicolas Rasmussen's faculty webpage for more information about his research and other publications.

The Page 99 Test: On Speed.

--Marshal Zeringue