Speed Freak

In October, Iowa’s drug “czar” Gary Kendall issued an alert that methamphetamine labs are again plaguing our state–this time utilizing a new, easy and highly explosive manufacturing technique. The “shake and bake” method requires only a two liter bottle, a handful of chemicals and a serious lack of common sense.

In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pressured manufacturers of Four Loko to pull their caffeine-laced malt beverage off the market following a spate of binge drinking mishaps. Four Loko has been nick-named “blackout in a can” and “liquid crack.” Meanwhile, Red Bull cocktails remain popular at college bars across the country.

Despite the best efforts of policy-makers to discourage the manufacture and sale of amphetamine, use of illicit stimulants is more popular than ever. Meanwhile, the sales of beverages containing huge amounts of legal stimulants–sugar, high fructose corn syrup and caffeine–are at an all-time high. So, how did we get to be a culture of speedfreaks?

Amphetamine is the devil in the occult folklore of modern culture. Western Society met Amphetamine at the cross-roads of the industrial revolution and gladly sold its soul to Mr. Crank. From the rise of the Third Reich to the rise of the Religious Right, from “Mothers Little Helper” to Mexican cartels, an entire class of drugs known commonly as “speed” has clandestinely fueled the development of the modern world.

In Mick Farren’s latest book, Speed Speed Speedfreak (Feral House Press, 2010), he examines the history and sociological significance of amphetamine and discovers that the use of speed is woven throughout the tapestry of 20th century culture. Invented initially as a bronchodilator at the beginning of the industrial age, it didn’t take long before Benzedrine became the fuel of the burgeoning entertainment industry, the assembly line industrial model and the war machines of governments across the globe.

In 206 fast-paced pages (the book itself is shaped like a giant “black beauty” dextroamphetamine capsule) the author keeps readers engaged with a mix of historical detail and political intrigue, infused with an insiders look at the effects of speed on the psychedelic ‘60s, biker culture and the punk music scene. As the lead singer of the British proto-punk band “The Deviants,” Farren experienced the story first hand and tells it with a survivor’s sense of humor. He was coming of age when the leather-clad Beatles were playing maniacal, speed-fueled marathon rockabilly sets in the strip clubs of Hamburg. He was on the scene when Roger Daltrey was stuttering “fa-fa-fade away,” imitating the speech pattern of The Who’s speedfreak fans (the fashionable teenage “Mods” used “yellow jackets” and “green and clears” to cope with the mindless workaday world of post-war England).

Then it was Farren’s turn. Criss-crossing Europe in vans full of freaks cranked on cheap Amphetamine Sulfate, Farren and friend Lemmy Kilmister set the standard for speed-crazed rock and roll. Lemmy went on to found Motörhead, taking his band’s name from British slang for speedfreak.

In Speed Speed Speedfreak, Farren does not dwell on his own story, or on rock and roll. The majority of the book is a fascinating look at how speed played a major roll in the big-picture history of modern society. Adolf Hitler was a notorious speedfreak whose personal physician administered a cocktail of amphetamine, cocaine and testosterone. The speed-induced madness of Der Fuhrer and his soldiers may very well have lead to the psychotic megalomania that eventually tore the world apart. President John Kennedy himself was a patient of Dr. Max Jacobson (the original “Dr. Feelgood”), an upscale Manhattan physician who regularly prescribed speed to the “Jet Set.”

The book also tells the tale of years of failed drug policy, and the unintended consequences that came along with it. With the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the era of easily obtainable, legal pharmaceutical speed came to an end. Far from ending the problem, the legislation ushered in the era of illegal “Biker Crank”–Methamphetamine–know commonly known as “meth.”

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The American meth trade was the engine that powered the rise to fame of the California-based motorcycle club, the Hells Angels. Using P2P (phenyl-2-propanone) pool-cleaner and other easily-obtainable industrial chemicals, the Angels perfected the “Nazi method” of cooking bathtub crank. They cooked in secret labs and distributed the dubious product through a growing network of local club chapters across the western United States.

When the federal government banned P2P, the Angels discovered that using ephedrine (a commonly used poultry medication) was even easier and provided a higher quality product. When the government cracked down on the Angels, Mexican drug cartels happily stepped in to provide an even more professional network for distributing cheap, high-quality crystal meth, or “Ice,” across the American heartland–including Iowa. In 1996, the New York Times reported that meth use among Iowa’s small-town working class had reached “epidemic” proportions.

In the late ‘90s, frustrated with the rapid growth of the Meth Problem and the seemingly endless supply, law enforcement agencies turned to cracking down on local tweakers, some of whom made small batches of meth in clandestine labs in trailers, garages, kitchens, even in the back seats of cars. This lead to restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, a synthetic ephedrine which is used in over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their bi-partisan victory in the war on drugs.

Busting local meth labs reduced the number of dangerous fires and explosions that come with cooking the volatile chemicals, and gave small-town media a steady source of headlines. However, drug enforcement officials admit that more than 80% of meth is imported, not the product of local cookers. In the document “Iowa’s Drug Control Strategy, 2011,” recently released by the Iowa Governor’s Drug Policy Advisory Council, officials point out that the rise of readily available Mexican meth has lead to a steady price and an astronomical leap in purity–from an average 14% in 1998 during the height of the “epidemic” of domestic meth labs in Iowa–to an average 78% purity in 2010. In addition, the document admits that domestic cooking is again on the rise with the advent of the so-called “shake and bake” method of small-batch processing.

Lest this article gives the reader the impression that speed use is just for bikers, truckers, strippers and denizens of the local trailer park, a 2008 report from The University of Michigan points out that up to 35% of American college students abuse prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall as “study aids.” It would appear that the 1970 law restricting use of legal amphetamine was really only restricting access for the working class.

A March 4, 2010 article in The Northern Iowan (the UNI student paper) suggests that Ritalin and Adderall abuse is not uncommon on Iowa campuses. Yet the Governor’s advisory council report does not even mention these drugs. Arrest records for abuse of the prescription speed are virtually non-existent. Are jail time, domestic abuse, rotten teeth and the other side-effects of illicit speed reserved for blue-collar abusers?

The distribution of legal amphetamines as diet drugs and alertness enhancers stopped in 1970, but researchers found a place for them–treating “hyperactivity” in children. “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD) sufferers are commonly prescribed the same basic compounds that were long ago issued to Hitler’s Ubermensch as they fought their way across the frozen Russian countryside. The omnipresence of high-quality pharmaceutical speed (among young people whose parents can afford health insurance) makes it easily obtainable by college students, with the highest percentage of abuse among fraternity and sorority house residents (according to the previously cited UM study.)

It appears that Americans’ appetite for stimulants is boundless. Aside from the more potent legal and illegal stimulants, the sale of energy drinks is increasing at a rate of nearly 50% per year over the last five years. Gourmet coffee shops serve a more expensive and upscale assortment of caffeine and sugar. Workers in an increasingly tenuous job market are feeling the pressure to perform and the market offers a stimulant for every budget and social class.

Near the end of Speed Speed Speedfreak, Mick Farren points out that “Drug panics would appear to be subject to a kind of natural entropy and will fade away of their own accord,” whether or not the War on Drugs continues.

Regardless of the hype, drug abuse is a problem for a small minority of Americans, although as many as 80% of prison inmates are serving time for drug-related charges. With the privatization of the prison industrial complex and the introduction of the profit motive into the process of incarceration, that trend is likely to continue. Jails and rehab programs will remain full because, regardless of the risk of a stiff sentence, the evidence shows that humans occupying all strata of society will continue to have the need for speed.