Benzedrine, often known by its nickname “bennies”, was a wonder drug for multiple health problems. That is, until it started killing people.
Benzedrine, often called by its street name “bennies”, is a fixture in popular culture. The drug has shown up in media ranging from the Sylvia Plath novel The Bell Jar to the REM song What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? to the TV series The Man In the High Castle. Because the drug had its heyday in the 1930s through the 1960s, some people may not be familiar with it. However, before the FDA stepped in to regulate it, Benzedrine was very common.
Article at a Glance:
- Benzedrine was the first brand name for amphetamine.
- The drug was hugely popular from the 1930s to the 1960s and was used to treat a variety of ailments such as fatigue.
- For safety reasons, the drug was later classified as a Schedule II controlled substance.
- Amphetamine is still used for medical reasons to this day, although under different brand names such as Adderall and Vyvanse.
What Is Benzedrine?
Benzedrine was a brand name for the drug amphetamine. First created by a Romanian chemist in 1887, it was rediscovered and patented in 1932 by the American scientist Gordon Alles. At the time, Alles was trying to create a drug to help with nasal congestion. Today, we know a group of drugs as amphetamines, as named by Alles, characterized by the similar effects they have on the body.
After patenting the drug, Alles joined forces with the drug company Smith, Kline, and French, now known as GlaxoSmithKline. The company heavily marketed the agent as a wonder drug. Prescription drugs did not exist at the time, so at first, the drug was sold over the counter.
Benzedrine gained commercial success as:
- A study aid for college students as early as the 1930s;
- A tool to keep American soldiers awake, confident and focused during World War II;
- A diet and mood pill for housewives in the 1950s and 1960s;
- A muse and energy booster to artists during the Beatnik period of the 1960s.
The drug became available in a couple of different forms.
Benzedrine inhalers were meant to help with nasal congestion. Unfortunately, they were commonly abused. People would often buy the inhalers and open them up. They would then take out the wet paper with the drug and swallow it to get high, stay focused and improve their mood. The author, Jack Kerouac, often used Benzedrine and wrote some of his most famous novels like On The Road while taking it. In the first seven years after these inhalers were released, Smith, Kline, and French claimed to have sold more than 10 million of them. The inhalers were eventually banned by the FDA in 1959.
Benzedrine pills were widespread during World War II. During that time, American forces were often given Benzedrine to stay awake and keep morale high. By the end of 1945, companies were selling about 750 million Benzedrine pills a year. This number rapidly grew to 8 billion pills a year by 1962 as civilian use grew. Women, in particular, used Benzedrine, often being given the drug with other multicolored pills in a bag of “rainbow pills” prescribed for mood and weight loss. Benzedrine pills are still available, although they are now a controlled substance.
Why Did Benzedrine Use Decrease?
Starting in the early 1960s, the dangers of Benzedrine began to gain attention. People who used Benzedrine sometimes struggled with side effects like psychosis. Further, doctors began to see that people were becoming addicted to the drug. A high-profile exposé in Life magazine in 1968 revealed how some doctors were giving the drug as a weight-loss agent to patients. The article also revealed several deaths linked to using the drug in this manner.
One of the most important factors in decreasing Benzedrine use was the Controlled Substances Act of 1971. With this law, Benzedrine became a Schedule II controlled substance, requiring doctors and pharmacists to keep detailed records. The government was also able to reduce the amount of Benzedrine that was produced. After this time, it was much more difficult for patients to acquire Benzedrine.
Is Benzedrine Still Available?
Although the brand name Benzedrine is no longer used, it is still legal, albeit highly controlled. The generic drug amphetamine is still available and can lead to addiction among users. Since being regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule II Controlled Substance, Benzedrine is now sold under brand names including:
Benzedrine was the first amphetamine used for medical purposes. Since its creation, other chemically related drugs have been discovered and are also available. These include:
Street drugs chemically related to Benzedrine are also still available. For example, crystal meth is a chemical cousin to Benzedrine and is known to be highly addictive.
What Is Benzedrine Used For Today?
Although Benzedrine itself is rarely used today, the active drug in Benzedrine, amphetamine, and some related chemicals are still used. They remain Schedule II controlled substances. Conditions they treat include:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Binge eating disorder
Boon, Marcus. “The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs.” 2002. Accessed August 14, 2019.
Hicks, Jesse. “Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine.” Science History, April 14, 2012. Accessed August 14, 2019.
Rasmussen, Nicolas. “America’s First Amphetamine Epidemic 1929–1971: A Quantitative and Qualitative Retrospective With Implications for the Present.” American Journal of Public Health, June 2008. Accessed August 14, 2019.
Blakemore, Erin. “A Speedy History of America’s Addiction to Amphetamine.” Smithsonian.com, October 27, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2019.
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