A terrible number of words have been written about Breaking Bad, yet none have struck upon the irony at its core. For all of the cult hit’s vaunted fine-brush realism and sly cultural references, the show never even winked at the real world “blue” that grew up alongside it.
During the five years Heisenberg spent as a blue-meth cook, the nation experienced a nonfictional explosion in the manufacture and sale of sapphire pills and azure capsules containing amphetamine. This other “blue,” known by its trade names Adderall and Vyvanse, found its biggest market in classrooms like Walter White’s. As this blue speed is made and sold in anodyne corporate environments, the drama understandably focused on blue meth and its buyers, usually depicted as jittery tweakers picking at lesions and wearing rags on loan from the cannibal gangs of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
For presenting such a compelling one-sided cartoon of speed in America, Breaking Bad deserves recognition as a modern day Reefer Madness. That 1937 film immortalized the selective attentions of the first drug war, in which hysteria was stoked over Mexican marijuana but nothing was said about that era’s brisk drugstore trade in Benzedrine, the patented speed of the Great Depression.
To understand why the “edgy” AMC drama fits so snug in the Reefer Madness mold, it helps to see the show from the perspective of pharmaceutical executives, whom I suspect held some rowdy Breaking Bad viewing parties.
Because here’s the thing about hide-the-children caricatures of street speed and the class stigmas they weave: Without them, the needle starts to skip on pharma’s marketing lullabies about the safety and expanding therapeutic application of their purer product. Take away Goofus and Gallant-style contrasts between backwoods Crank Zombies and suburban Adderall Aspirationals, and suddenly we’re having some very awkward conversations about the periodic table, addiction, and the experience of getting high.
Aside from some foul cutting material, Winnebago methamphetamine and pharmaceutical amphetamine are kissing chemical cousins. The difference between them boils down to one methyl-group molecule that lets crank race a little faster across the blood-brain barrier and kick just a little harder. After that, meth breaks down fast into good old dextroamphetamine, the dominant salt in America’s leading ADHD drug and cram-study aid, Adderall.
Image: Michael Chen/Flickr
Writing as someone who has consumed his share of product from both buckets (more about which below) I can attest that the difference between Adderall and street crank is much overstated, bordering on complete social fiction.
This is not exactly a state secret. After legal speed started its comeback as a treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder, The Journal of Neuroscience published a study that functioned as a polite tap on the shoulder. Amphetamine and methamphetamine, the researchers wrote, are “about equipotent” and “produce qualitatively similar behavioral responses.” Both excite the central nervous system in nearly identical ways, flooding and blocking dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline receptors. Also, meth is meth is meth. The brain responds the same whether it’s produced by the Sinaloa boys and slung by the gram-baggie as glass, or made by Lundbeck Inc. and sold in orange bottles at CVS as the meth-based ADHD drug Desoxyn®.
Most people understand that heroin and Oxycontin are both hard, addictive drugs. Not so with speed. When it comes to amphetamine, we’ve chosen a national split-screen in which doctors airily put millions of healthy children and adults on daily speed regimens while SWAT teams throw concussion bombs in baby cribs in pursuit of small-fry meth dealers.
This split-screen is held steady by media accounts that take the two-bucket speed paradigm for granted. The New Yorker reports on “cognitive enhancers” popular with Ivy League pioneers of “cosmetic neurology”—those “high-functioning, over-committed people tak[ing] Adderall and Ritalin to become higher functioning and more overcommitted.” Articles about meth, on the other hand, invariably sound as if penned by the slumming spawn of David Brooks and Jane Goodall. Anthropologist Jason Pine “embedded” with meth users in rural Missouri and described the experience to the New Republic. “They’re very happy and want to share,” Pine explained. “There’s some moodiness, too—they’ll quickly snap into some kind of aggressive reaction.”
Do they also have a hand signal for “banana”?
A meth cleanup in Bristol, Virginia. Image: Robert Spiegel, Wikimedia
The results of this split-screen speed fallacy have begun to come in. One-in-five American teenage boys have received an ADHD diagnosis; the adult market for prescription amphetamines is in boost phase, up by half since 2008. A growing number of prescription speed users are arriving at ER rooms and rehab centers across the country.
Dr. Lawrence Diller, author of Running on Ritalin, notes that amphetamines have overtaken opiates as the leading cause of admission to California addiction clinics. The ADHD drug industry response to this latest trophy-stat is hopefully more subdued than its likely reaction to surpassing diabetes drugs in 2012 as the country’s fastest growing drug category. For those who can’t afford rehab, addiction forums like QuittingAdderall.com are popping up.
New women users are driving the speed boom. In March, Express Scripts, which monitors industry trends, issued a report showing that women aged 26 to 34 have become the fastest growing market segment with an 85 percent increase in ADHD drug prescriptions over the last five years. The age bracket beneath them, female millennials, has spiked sharply in ADHD diagnoses over the same period.
Across all demographics, national spending on speed has nearly doubled since 2008. It is now a $10 billion market accounting for more than four-fifths of the world’s pharmaceutical speed. America’s speed consumption is projected to rise another quarter by the end of 2015. The Express Scripts report concludes with a rhetorical question: “Are we over-diagnosing and overmedicating the adult population?”
“Medicating” isn’t the word they’re looking for, but the query is a good start.
Today’s adult trend lines are no accident. For years, pharma has been modernizing the lucrative female-oriented speed marketing campaigns of the postwar decades. They were so successful the first time around that by the late ‘60s, millions of women had become dependent on prescription speed pills. It was during this period, with the US speed market peaking at around four billion pills annually, that the young field of brain science began to understand why, in the words of one scholar, “given access to enough amphetamine, any rat, monkey, or man would eventually self-destruct.”
When the World Health Organization studied America’s postwar speed crisis at its height, it concluded the dangers of amphetamines outweighed their benefits in general medical practice. Every industrial nation agreed with this assessment, including the United States, and changed its laws accordingly. Among the social convulsions of the 1960s was a speed backlash that took the form of critical press, public outrage, and Congressional hearings that led to limits on the production, marketing, and sale of amphetamines.
Today’s evolving speed boom looks eerily familiar. History and industry projections tell us America’s new pill party will soon resemble the old, and will end just as badly. It’s a party that’s just getting started. In the words of momswithADD.com, “We’re having an ADD PARTY tonight and you are invited!”
To see the future of America’s speed epidemic, you can study past speed epidemics. Or you can follow the travelling medicine show of Dr. Patricia Quinn. Both routes take you within view of the same hundred-car pileup.
Over the last 20 years, Quinn has emerged as a leading ADHD expert. A staple of the lecture circuit, she is the author of several books and appears regularly on national television. Like most of her peers in the incestuous network of pharma-funded ADHD organizations and websites, she fronts for drug manufacturers.
Over the years she’s worked as a consultant and speaker for Shire, Noven, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals. These companies sell amphetamines. The breakout demographic for these drugs happens to be young women: Quinn’s specialty. Her professional life revolves around concern that American women and girls aren’t consuming their fair share of the 200 tons of speed this country swallows annually. That the population of women seeking ADHD diagnoses is rising so quickly is validation of her life’s work.
The new industry numbers haven’t slowed Quinn or her comrades working to persuade women and girls to seek treatment for symptoms of ADHD. Quinn’s website ADDvance.com—“We’re here to help you learn to spread your wings and fly!” — offers the self-diagnostic quizzes peculiar to ADHD marketing.
For girls: “Is your room very messy?”
For their mothers: “Is your daughter a daydreamer, tomboy or ‘Chatty Kathy’?”
Quinn’s bio explains that she founded a group called the National Center for Girls and Women with ADHD. We’ll have to trust her, because the outfit doesn’t have a website. This is a curious commonality among female-oriented ADHD groups. The link to Dr. Kathleen Nadeau’s National Center for Gender Issues and ADHD takes you to a site promoting a different product line, e-cigarettes, in particular, a model called the Ave 40 Vape. As of this writing, Nadeau’s corporate runners haven’t bothered to change the ADD group’s acronym in the URL.
Whether or not these ADHD centers ever existed, the letterheads provide a veneer of legitimacy to touring advertorial slide shows like Quinn’s, titled “AD/HD in Girls and Women: The Hidden Disorder.” Quinn’s female audiences don’t always learn about her financial ties to the companies selling the drugs she praises.
Nor do they learn that speed is the earliest known synonym for the addiction spiral, the modern textbook understanding of physiological dependence and tolerance having come from studies of amphetamine’s effects on dopamine. Quinn’s slide show also fails to mention that speed once provided researchers with their best experimental simulation of schizophrenia. During the 1960s, researchers concluded that habitual amphetamine use produced a more accurate “model psychosis” than LSD.
What women do learn from Quinn is that a daily speed regimen will help their careers, love lives, and waistlines. A slide from “The Hidden Disorder” explains, “AD/HD symptoms predict aspects of overeating… which are correlated with Body Mass Index… and a pattern of eating carbohydrates (sweets and starchy snacks) in the evening.”
Slide from Dr. Quinn's "The Hidden Disorder"
Indulgence in sweets and starchy snacks can apparently be more of a sign of ADHD than bad grades. As Quinn told an “ADD coaching” website, “It is important to treat ADHD in girls even if they seem to be doing well academically and holding it all together, because they may be doing so at a great cost.” Once they get on speed, they must stay on speed, says Quinn, because “ADHD is a chronic, life-long disorder” best treated by pills that “decrease the urge to binge.”
Quinn is among the busiest charlatans on the ADHD circuit. She’s also a candidate for the most retro. Her hard sell to women, filled with references to Body Mass Index and the stresses of “keeping house,” is a throwback to the successful midcentury business strategy of the legal speed cartels: market to women by exploiting their insecurities about weight, productivity, and positivity, then hand over the rest of the job to dependence—what pharma reps used to call “stickiness.”
Manufacturers of legal speed have never settled for a market limited to hyperactive boys, any more than an outlaw meth operation would limit its clientele to long-haul truckers. Indeed, pharma’s exertions in growing the speed market are as old as the first amphetamine patent.
In the mid-1930s, less than a decade after the first synthesis of amphetamine, the psychiatrist Charles Bradley conducted experiments with the Benzedrine salts produced by Smith, Kline & French. His conclusion was ahead of its time. The drug’s most promising medical use, reported Bradley, was a schoolhouse treatment for “problem” children. SKF didn’t like the numbers.
The company preferred researchers who envisioned a wider market for what one scientific contemporary called “a drug in search of a disease.” SKF found their man in Abraham Myerson, a Harvard professor and early practitioner of psychiatry who published papers recommending amphetamines as a “pick-me-up” for anyone with hangovers or “general tension.”
Myerson’s body of work, including the book “The Nervous Housewife,” provided the intellectual and commercial foundation for marketing speed to the general public — especially women. SKF sent mailers citing Myerson’s work to tens of thousands of general practice doctors. The company recommended their marvelous new drug as a treatment for as many as 39 conditions, including hiccups.
As with today’s industry-funded ADHD websites, these pamphlets made scant or zero mention of the known risks of addiction, depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Myerson’s Depression-era work for SKF began something of a crimson tradition. His legacy lives on today in the form Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Joseph Biederman, a key thought leader in the growth of ADHD meds who was censured in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health for concealing millions of dollars of pharma consulting income.
An early magazine ad for the weight loss drug biphatemine. Image: Public domain.
Speed became a huge commercial success after the war. During the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, amphetamines were widely used across all social strata. But its biggest profits came as a socially sanctioned tool to help American women shed pounds and “stay pepped” while grinding out lives in the Cold War suburbs. The nation consumed a wide variety of patented amphetamines, from the bestselling Benzedrine, Dexedrine and Dexamyl, to any number of generic copycats. More than a few of these brands contained methamphetamine.
The popular meth-based diet drug Obetrol, produced in Brooklyn by Rexar Pharmaceuticals, both controlled appetites in Levittown and kept the party going at Warhol’s Factory, where it was the speed of choice. (On the morning Valerie Solanas shot Warhol, the artist was on his way to the drug store to pick up his Obetrol prescription.)
By 1970, nearly 10 percent of American women regularly used or were dependent on some form of amphetamine, most prescribed for weight loss. In his book Speed-Speed-Speedfreak, Mick Warren reminds us that hooked housewives and twenty-something women were established cultural tropes, the sirens in songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and Canned Heat’s “Amphetamine Annie.” Beginning in the mid-1960s, media exposés in Ladies Home Journal and other magazines fed calls for Congressional action. High-profile hearings followed. These led to the Controlled Substances Act and the classification of amphetamines, against fierce industry resistance, as a Schedule II drug defined by the high risk of addiction and potential for abuse. For the first time, federal limits were placed on annual speed production.
With help from friends in Congress, those quotas have been steadily loosened in recent years, and are now approaching pre-1970 levels.
The 1970 Act signed by Richard Nixon is no model for rational drug policy. But the hearings that led to it got some important things right. Looking back, one is struck by the realism that defined the proceedings that concerned speed. There was no dual-frame separating “good” medical and “bad” street speed. Anyone attempting to use two categories for the same drug would have been laughed at, or greeted as a marketing visionary from the future.
In the late 1960s, pharma produced as much as 90 percent of amphetamine sold on the street, and everyone knew it. In 1964, a CBS news team used crudely faked letterhead to procure hundreds of thousands of speed pills from major companies for a few hundred bucks. Walter Cronkite ended the report with a slap at leading “seemingly innocent” manufacturers. Sometimes pharma just dumped product directly onto the black market. Strasenburgh, maker of the popular Adderall-precursor known as Black Beauties, was fined repeatedly for pill diversion, including a bulk delivery to the 11th hole at a golf course in Tijuana.
The 1970 hearings featured a baseline assumption that amphetamines are addictive and harmful even, and often especially, when “taken as prescribed.” Today we’re still miles from that starting line. Ditto our lost understanding of the symbiosis between speed and downer epidemics. As David Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Clinic testified, “What happens when a major speed scene develops [is that] a downer or depressant scene follows.”
Xanny bar, anyone?
In every dimension of today’s speed boom—chemistry, history, economics—“speed” is the only credible noun.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, isn’t alone in working to revive the postwar adult speed market. Take a stroll through pharma-linked ADHD sites and media coverage, and you’ll encounter the same handful of women, over and over again, all echoing Quinn’s view of women with undiagnosed ADHD as “the true ‘Desperate Housewives’.” They are the “hidden” afflicted whose suffering will end when they “own their ADD,” in the words of the direct-marketing campaign featuring Adam Levine of Maroon 5. (Expect more celebrity ADHD ads in the future.)
One star in this world of female adult ADHD advocacy is Terry Matlen of momswithADD.com. Like Quinn, Matlen claims to be helping women understand a disease. But the message delivered on the website of her business, ADDconsults.com, is aimed at a very different audience: pharma clients with products to push. Matlen makes a strong pitch to companies in the ADHD marketplace: “Would you like to have your product/service seen by thousands of people who are interested in AD/HD? Because of my high visibility online, I can: promote your service/product via many only venues, i.e., ADD Consults’ website, newsletters, blog, online store; write articles related to your product; be available to represent you or your product to the media.”
Matlen’s recent clients include the makers of leading speed brands. But since she acts as more of a fixer, and doesn’t actually prescribe the pills, she sees these relationships as irrelevant to her integrity as a therapist. “I am not compromised by ties to companies that make ADHD treatments—medications—as I cannot prescribe medications,” Matlen told Motherboard.
Sari Solden, the Ann Arbor-based therapist behind ADDjourneys.com, could mount the same defense. Like Matlen, Solden is no doctor, but she loves a good quiz to get women pointed in the right direction. In her “handy checklist” of ADHD symptoms published at ADDitudemag.com, Solden asks, “Is time, money, paper, or ‘stuff’ dominating your life and hampering your ability to achieve your goals?”
Women can gab with Solden about their struggles with “stuff” this July in Orlando, the geographical center of the Pill Mill State, where Solden will keynote the International Adult ADHD Conference. The organizer of this exciting annual networking event is the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, a front group for Johnson and Johnson’s Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Concerta. The 2014 conference agenda reflects important market trends. One panel is titled, “OMG – I Caught ADHD From My Children!” But there’s more to the event than just informative panels. The conference is an opportunity for doctors to meet some the 100,000 people who, in the words of ADDA, “are coming to our website looking for the experts who get it and the professionals who can help them.” [Emphasis mine.]
In Orlando, ADDA will officially celebrate 25 years in existence. The group will unofficially celebrate much more. After decades in suspended animation, the adult speed market is finally back on its feet, feeling pepped, and ready to go. A long-term strategy of cultivating professional societies, primary care doctors, the media, and political allies has paid off. From the beginning, the secret weapon of this strategy has been women like Quinn: pseudo-scientific quiz givers who talk like Oprah, who claim to suffer from ADHD and “get” you, and who have a little something that just might help you shed those pounds, manage house, and keep the blues at bay.
Anyone seeking to understand the treachery behind today’s medical-industrial ADHD complex should begin with Nicolas Rasmussen’s essential history, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine. Rasmussen, a science historian at the University of South Wales, tells a story that ought to inform every media treatment of the subject, but never does. When it comes to speed, the national amnesia is stronger than crank. Ryan D’Agostino’s recent Esquire feature about ADHD, “The Drugging of the American Boy,” dispatched with the history of speed in two references: 1955, the year Ritalin was patented, and 1987, when the American Psychiatric Association codified ADHD (as opposed to ADD). Otherwise, it’s as if we just discovered fire.
An early Ritalin ad. Image: Public domain.
This amnesia results in delusional and dangerous diction.
Americans love the word “speed.” We use it in movie titles, video games, ads for broadband, and pizza delivery. Its etymology even echoes the national mythos. The Old English “sped,” from which the modern noun derives, meant “success, prosperity, wealth, luck, opportunity, advancement.” This origin captures all the reasons speed is the quintessential American drug. It also suggests a perilous lexicon.
Articles about ADHD drugs are fine talking about success, work, competition, and advancement, but try finding one that calls the drug by its name: Speed. The word simply eludes us when we try to figure out why Johnny Prep is being rushed to ER. When our speed comes in a bottle covered by Blue Cross, we call it “medicine”; when it’s Blue Meth in a baggie, we don’t just call it a “hard drug,” we send out the SWAT team, declare “National Methamphetamine Awareness” day, and gawk in titillation at the poor, uninsured tweakers on basic cable.
Consider Alan Schwarz’s damning December 2013 New York Times investigation, “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.” The story exposed pharma’s systematic decades-long efforts to expand the market and appeal of ADHD drugs. As strong as the piece is, Schwarz sticks to industry-approved marketing vernacular. The piece deals only with “medicine” and, at the far end, “stimulants.” Despite his intimate knowledge of “off-label” speed casualties, not once does Schwarz use the word “speed,” or reference the “Speed Kills” campaign of his childhood.
Flinching language even undermines first-person essays that attempt to traffic in blunt honesty. Kate Miller wrote for the Times “Anxiety” blog about faking an ADHD diagnosis and becoming addicted to Adderall. The piece ends with Miller flushing her “remaining medicine” down the toilet.
“I made a child’s miscalculation that there is a shortcut to maturity and success,” she writes. “It felt good to finally understand that the very self I was trying to shed had become my salvation.”
Translated from therapy-speak: “I got hooked on speed, tweaked for a while, and kicked.”
In every dimension of today’s speed boom—chemistry, history, economics—“speed” is the only credible noun. Only “speed” captures what amphetamines feel like and what they do to the brain. Only “speed” implies the crash, which defines the drug as much as the high. Only “speed” connects today’s corporate amphetamine sales to those of yesterday. “Speed” alone bridges the imaginary gap separating Walter White’s product and Shire’s.
For those who have never taken speed, it’s difficult to convey the seriousness of a public health disaster—and the depths of its underlying corruption—that results in healthy college students taking 90 daily milligrams of amphetamine salts under blasé doctor’s orders.
The clinical literature on speed isn’t very large, and that has something to do with the fact that pharma funds much of the research, then decides what gets released to the public. When independent reports do come out, like the American Heart Association study linking speed use to a more than tripled risk of a torn aorta—which leads to a gruesome and fast death—the conclusions don’t get much attention. When the AHA announced in 2007 a need for better research into speed’s little-understood long-term impacts on the cardiovascular system, the media hardly noticed. Most national magazines were too busy running misleading images of “meth mouth.”
There is a reason front groups like CHADD and ADDA focus on “the science of ADHD,” which is not hard science, and ignore the science of the drugs used to treat it, which is hard science. In the understated language of a 2009 paper published in Molecular Psychiatry, “Effects of prolonged stimulant treatment have not been fully explored, and understanding such effects is a research priority... Case reports indicate that prescription use can produce marked psychological adverse events, including stimulant-induced psychosis.”
The paper does not dwell on the distinction between street and pharma product, because this distinction is narrow and beside the point. It was born with the rise of ADHD meds and the (arguably not coincidental) concurrent national hysteria around dirty street meth. The distinction has over the years hardened into a thick plexiglass window that is the looking glass of our dysfunctional speed debate.
Let me remove this looking glass and share with you my own mini speed memoir.
For about five years in my twenties, I used “bad” speed. While living in Prague during the late 90s, then, as now, the speed capital of Europe, I snorted the local meth pervitin, which the Nazis once mass-produced in the chemical factories of occupied Bohemia. In Cambodia, I popped pink meth pills called yaba (Thai for “crazy medicine”). When I moved to New York in the early aughts, I dabbled in crystal meth, “as needed.” I did meth for the same reasons and to the same effects that sophomores at Stanford and busy professionals and parents in Bergen County seek scripts for Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse. I did it to work, to compete, to increase productivity. After a day of teaching English or editing an understaffed newspaper, I wanted my energy back to pursue my own work.
Also, speed is euphoric and fun. At least it is until that miserable hollowing known as the Crash. Then you’ll do anything to stave the void. One easy way to do this is to take more speed. But you build tolerance. The crashes get worse. After just a week of steady use, I’ve found the demons start to gather, and life begins to lose savor. You start to become just a functioning shell.
The first time someone handed me 30 milligrams of Adderall, I wasn’t expecting much. As a connoisseur of crank, I thought it would be closer to the caffeine study pills we crushed up back in the more innocent ‘90s. Isn’t this the stuff they’re giving all those third-graders? How strong could it be?
Strong. My first pharma high was on par with any bathtub crank I ever bought in a Bratislava train station. It was just cleaner, with smoother slopes. After my first taste test, I never did “bad” speed again.
“If you went into a back alley and lined up pharmaceutical Dexedrine and Adderall next to a line of street meth, hardcore tweakers would choose the pure Dexedrine every time,” James Kent, a veteran drug journalist and editor of DoseNation.com, told me. “Though some might choose Adderall because the Benzedrine cocktail adds intensity to the rush.”
For the next few years, I bought my “good,” New Yorker-approved speed from the same dealers who once sold me “bad” send-in-the-SWAT-Team meth. Buying Adderall from dealers had two advantages. One, they sold benzos and opiates to help with the crash. Two, the street prices and discreet pick-ups never let me forget that I was buying a hard, addictive drug. Those without prior speed experience don’t have this knowledge to forget.
Around 2009, I noticed more friends and acquaintances getting scripts. These people would never in a million years be caught facedown in a caterpillar of street meth, but here they were singing in the rain about Adderall—Kate Miller’s “medicine.” More than one of these people asked me, “Why are you paying $20 a pill?” They suggested doing what they did: take an online quiz, find a friendly ADDA-approved doctor who “gets it,” and get sorted in a doctor’s office.
I never considered it. A cheap and limitless supply of pharma-grade amphetamine, signed off by a friendly medical professional, struck me as an incredibly unwise pursuit. That’s how you become a heavy or daily user. The road to tweakdom is paved with Duane Reade co-pay receipts. I’ve since been proved right, sadly, by watching speed hurt people I care about.
One of these people, a 24-year-old woman I’ll call Lily, got her first Adderall pill from a friend in high school. A succession of Manhattan psychiatrists happily filled her requests for a script beginning at age 17. She spent her college years in a hyper-productive speed daze, posting good grades and landing a job after graduation. Along the way, her daily dose increased with tolerance. She forgot who she was, developed acute anxiety, and damn near lost her mind, if not her soul. She tried to quit midway through her spiral, but her doctors told her it was dangerous to abruptly stop taking her “medicine.” Instead of taking her off the speed, which she knew was the problem, they put her on Effexor, an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety SNRI. She finally ditched her doctors after having a seizure in a Brooklyn bodega at the end of a long stretch of speed sleeplessness.
“By the time I had the seizure, I was taking 90 milligrams of Adderall a day,” she says. “I knew girls who were taking the same amount or more. I don’t know if any of us had so-called ADHD, but the effects [of the Adderall] started to look exactly like how ADHD symptoms are described. I was told I needed it, so I believed it, but it was really just addiction.”
For those who have never taken speed, it’s difficult to convey the seriousness of a public health disaster—and the depths of its underlying corruption—that results in healthy college students taking 90 daily milligrams of amphetamine salts under blasé doctor’s orders. At 90 milligrams a day, the question is not if the person will eventually experience some form of speed psychosis, but what grade and when. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady would have struggled to keep up with today’s Generation Speed.
I think adults should have access to speed if they want it, without fear of arrest, as well as free addiction treatment if they need it. The problem begins, and becomes a national scandal and crisis, when socially sanctioned corporate dealers are allowed to dishonestly market these drugs through a sophisticated network permeating the medical establishment, backed by the power of modern advertising. No pimply meth dealer ever tried to tell me his product was a harmless stimulant. No Mexican cartel ever made huge buys in medical journals to corner the market on fifth-graders, or hired pop stars to push their product on young moms on national television.
As Adam Levine could attest to, but won’t, speed crashes get deeper and blacker with age. By my mid-30s, my speed use became extremely rare and strategic—an emergency boost reserved for the most-dire deadline situations. I now dread even 10 milligrams of Adderall, that real world “blue,” as a kind of punishment. I’ve also come to see speed as the nemesis of creativity and thought, the ultimate good-little-robot drug. I won’t lie and say I ever flushed anything down the toilet, or that I’ll never take speed again. But it’s been a long time since I bought the stuff. I now stick to the weak classical highs of coffee and tea, which can honestly and without obfuscation be described as harmless stimulants.
I also tell people considering a script about Lily’s addiction, anxiety, and seizure. The industry trend lines are stark, and they all point up. She wasn’t the first unrecorded casualty of this new speed crisis. She’s nowhere near the last.
Amanda Knudsen contributed to this article.