Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887 by a Romanian chemist, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the drug was tested for legitimate medical uses.

Article at a Glance:

  • Crystal meth may seem like a relatively novel drug, but amphetamine drugs like crystal meth have actually been around for quite some time.
  • Meth has links to World War II, when soldiers used methamphetamine tablets to stay alert and increase their endurance for battle.
  • After the war, amphetamine abuse continued, eventually becoming popular among motorcycle gangs, necessitating federal regulation of the chemicals utilized in meth production.

Where Did Meth Come From?

With the use of drugs like meth becoming so prevalent in the U.S. and around the world, it’s easy to see these substances as relatively new to the scene. In reality, most drugs, including meth, are anything but new, even though the attention they’re receiving may seem somewhat new.

While methamphetamine isn’t a new drug, it has become more potent and more dangerous in recent years. In fact, according to the 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2019 samples of methamphetamine were, on average, over 97% in purity and potency. Samples of seized methamphetamine steadily increased in potency from 2014 to 2019.

An overview of the history of meth provides a timeline of how we arrived at the methamphetamine problem we see in the United States today.

Who Invented Methamphetamines?

According to scientists, the origins of meth point to Lazar Edeleanu, a Romanian chemist, was the first to synthesize amphetamine in 1887. It was at this time when meth was originally invented, however, the drug was not seen as useful at the time. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that Los Angeles chemist Gordon Alles began testing amphetamine, allowing a doctor to inject him with the drug. Alles was attempting to find an alternative to the drug ephedrine, and after testing, he developed Benzedrine, the brand-name version of amphetamine. The drug was originally used to treat narcolepsy, mild depression and a host of other health problems.

Origination of Meth

Methamphetamine is a chemical derivative of amphetamine, and just like amphetamine, it was developed as an alternative to the ephedra plant, whose active ingredient is ephedrine. According to what is known from history, meth was originally invented in 1893 by a Japanese chemist who synthesized the drug from another stimulant.

That being said, it wasn’t until 1919 that Japanese chemist Akira Ogata created a more efficient method of making meth, utilizing phosphorus and iodine to crystalize ephedrine and create crystal meth.

Meth in WWII

Another important piece of the history of meth is its links to World War II when the German drug company Temmler produced methamphetamine tablets and marketed them to military personnel to increase endurance and reduce fatigue.

Pilots were said to take large doses of meth tablets, called Pervitin, before suicide missions, while Japanese factory workers took the drug to allow them to work long hours. German soldiers and fighter pilots were also commanded to take stimulants that contained meth combined with cocaine.

Meth Use Following WWII

Following World War II, amphetamine use continued. In the 1950s, recreational use of the amphetamine Benzedrine was popular in the Beatnik culture; however, it became evident that amphetamine use had serious consequences, including paranoid behavior, heart problems and delusions. In 1959, the FDA began to require a prescription for Benzedrine.

Was Meth Ever Legal?

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the government began regulating chemicals used to make methamphetamine. Laws in the 1990s regulated ephedrine and other chemicals that serve as precursors to meth and created harsher penalties for trafficking and production of the drug.

Today, meth is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, placing it in the same category as cocaine and PCP. This means that meth has a high potential for abuse and can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

When Did Meth Become Popular?

A timeline of meth abuse indicates that the drug became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when truck drivers, college students, athletes and motorcycle gangs began using amphetamines, which they referred to as speed and uppers.

In the 1980s, after the federal government began regulating the key chemical used to make meth, cooks providing the drug to motorcycle gangs found that ephedrine from over-the-counter cold medications could be used to create crystal meth. At this time, Mexican drug cartels began to supply ephedrine to the cooks, and crystal meth use took off. It was during this time that home meth labs, where people used chemicals like acetone, battery acid and paint thinners to create the drug, also became more popular.

While recent data indicate that just 0.6% of the United States population uses meth within a given year, trends show a significant uptick in overdose deaths involving stimulant drugs like meth over the past few years. This suggests that a meth crisis may be underway.

If you or a loved one live with methamphetamine addiction or are using methamphetamine recreationally and want to stop, it’s time to seek professional help. The Recovery Village provides care to those struggling with addiction. Reach out to one of our knowledgeable representatives today to learn how you can start on your path to recovery.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Anglin, M. Douglas, et al. “History of the methamphetamine problem.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, September 6, 2011. Accessed August 30, 2021.

Heal, David J., et al. “Amphetamine, past and present- a pharmac[…]clinical perspective.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2021.

Hicks, Jesse. “Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine.” Science History Institute, April 14, 2021. Accessed August 30, 2021. “History of Meth.” August 21, 2018. Accessed August 30, 2021.

Hunt, Dana et al. “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned.” U.S. Department of Justice, February 2006. Accessed August 30, 2021.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Overdose Death Rates.” January 29, 2021. Accessed August 27, 2021.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is the scope of methamphetamine mis[…]in the United States?” October 2019. Accessed August 30, 2021.

PBS. “Timeline.” May 16, 2011. Accessed August 30, 2021.

U.S. Department of Justice. “Crystal Methamphetamine Fast Facts.” Accessed August 30, 2021.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.” March 2021. Accessed August 30, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.