The University of Arizona

History, Pharmacology, and Prevalence
Methamphetamine Overview:
Origin and History

Amphetamine was first synthesized by a Romanian chemist named Lazar Edeleanu (a.k.a. Edeleano) at the University of Berlin in 1887, but was not used clinically until Gordon A. Alles re-synthesized the drug in the 1920s for use in medical settings to treat asthma, hayfever, and colds.[1-5]  In 1932, Smith, Kline, and French Laboratories marketed the first amphetamine product, an amphetamine-based inhaler (trade name, Benzedrine) to treat nasal congestion.[6]  During the remaining 1930s, amphetamines were promoted by U.S. pharmaceutical companies as treatments for ailments such as rhinitis and asthma.[1-7]

Methamphetamine (MA), a variant of amphetamine, was first synthesized in Japan in 1893 by Nagayoshi Nagai from the precursor chemical ephedrine.[8-10]  MA was not widely used until World War II (1940s), at which time German, English, American, and Japanese governments began giving their military personnel the drug to enhance endurance and alertness and ward off fatigue.[2,6,9,10]  (Note: Even today, amphetamines are sometimes used by the U.S. military.  In 2002, U.S. pilots in Afghanistan killed and wounded Canadian soldiers in “friendly fire.”  The defending lawyers argued that the pilots’ use of amphetamines, which is sanctioned by the Air Force, may have affected the pilots’ judgment.[6]

In addition to military usage, Japanese factory workers were known to use MA to work longer hours.  Post World War II, former Japanese military warehouses had an abundant amount of the drug in storage and as a result, large quantities of over-the-counter methamphetamine pills were produced for domestic consumption by Japanese pharmaceutical companies.  It was in Japan that the first MA epidemic occurred.[1]

In the U.S. a prescription was needed to access amphetamines, thus slowing the onset of an epidemic.  Nevertheless, by the 1950s, the prevalence of amphetamine use was on the rise among civilians, including groups such as college students, truck drivers, athletes, housewives, and individuals performing monotonous jobs.[1,11]  By 1959, the FDA banned amphetamine-based inhalers due to increases in their abuse.[12]  However, at the same time, amphetamine and its various forms were promoted as therapeutic agents for health problems such as hyperactivity, obesity, narcolepsy, and depression.  In the 1960s, administering amphetamines, including MA, by intravenous injection gained popularity, especially among individuals already using illicit drugs.  It was this group that may have first used amphetamines solely for their euphoric effects.[1]

Most of the amphetamines available at that time were diverted from pharmaceutical companies.  The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 largely ended that diversion, and thus helped reduce problems associated with the drug.[13]  All forms of amphetamines were classified as DEA Schedule II drugs in 1971.[6]  (Schedule II drugs have an accepted medical use, high potential for abuse, may lead to psychological or physical dependence, and are available only by prescription.)  Public health efforts that included education and treatment were also implemented to help address the problems related to amphetamines.[1]

Despite these efforts, the use of MA began rising again in the 1980s, due in large part to production of the drug in clandestine labs.[14]  To help counter this resurgence, the federal government regulated the precursor chemicals—ephedrine and pseudoephedrine—commonly used in the illicit production of MA.[15]  These efforts led to substantial temporary reductions in MA-related problems.[15-17]  However, they also inadvertently helped open the U.S. MA market to foreign producers, as domestic producers had difficulty obtaining the precursor chemicals needed to produce the drug.[17-18]  Foreign producers now supply much of the U.S. MA market, and attempts to bring that production under control have been problematic.[19]

Street names for MA include crystal, crank, ice, glass, go, meth, speed, and zoom.



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