Nazis Used Meth? 5 Things to Know About One of the World's Favorite Stimulants

The degree of fear-mongering over meth is absurd.

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As one who writes in defense of recreational “hard” drug users, I am frequently irked by the anti-drug sensationalism presented in supposedly objective news articles. An example is the recent front-page article in the Huffington Post, “Nazis Took ‘Meth’ Pills to Stay Alert, Boost Endurance During World War II, Letters Reveal."

Pairing methamphetamine with the Nazis is a double-the-evil masterstroke of front-page flair. It comes from a journalistic tradition that has similarly paired crack with black welfare queens in the mythic crack-baby epidemic, and cannibals and mephedrone in the nonsensical bath-salts cannibalism phenomenon. (Both the crack-baby and the bath-salts cannibalism stories have been debunked; see here and here.)

The basis of the Huffington Post article is that the Nazis gave their troops the drug Pervitin (pharmaceutical methamphetamine), in World War II. This is true, but the rest of the article is a lesson in spin.

1. Nothing New Here

First, the letters did not reveal anything new. Nazi use of Pervitin has been widely known for over seventy years. The letters themselves were old news as well. The only thing new was someone at the Huffington Post read Der Spiegel and realized Nazis plus meth equals web gold.

2. American Kids Are Prescribed Almost the Same Thing

Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine that has essentially the same effect on the central nervous system as dextroamphetamine. Dextroamphetamine is in Adderall. The substantial difference between street methamphetamine and Adderall is not from their pharmacology but from dosage and administration. Adderall users take small doses by the ingestion of pills. Street users inject or smoke large doses. Injecting and smoking provides a shorter, but more intense, reaction to a drug. The Nazis distributed small doses in pill form, just as American doctors do today to our nation’s youth—with negligible addiction risk.

3. Allied Forces Did and Still Do Almost the Same Thing

During World War II over 72 million “energy tablets” were dispersed to the British military, and an even larger amount went to US forces. Amphetamines assisted in stopping Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel and the German army in Northern Africa at the Second Battle of El Alamein where the British 24th Armoured Brigade fought without sleep for four straight days while losing heavy casualties.

Ironically, the American military went with amphetamines instead of methamphetamines because the former provided a better “subjective lift in mood.” In lay terms, the US chose amphetamine because it gave a better high, and they continued to use it. Decades later the US military’s usage of amphetamines per soldier in Vietnam dwarfed the usage of both the Germans and the Allies in World War II.

The amphetamine Dexedrine is still used by Air Force pilots today. In 2003, Colonel Peter Demitry, chief of the US Air Force surgeon-general’s science and technology division, said that Dexedrine, “has never been associated with a proven adverse outcome in a military operation. This is a common, legal, ethical, moral and correct application.” If the distribution of amphetamines caused significant troop addiction, it is doubtful the military would continue to use it.

4. Everyone Already Knows That Meth Is Bad

The requisite morality message that methamphetamine is bad is delivered in the article by saying its usage leads to the symptoms exhibited by extreme cases. Most people who try methamphetamine do not continue to use it regularly, much less become horribly addicted, and as someone who has spent time with middle-class methamphetamine users I can assure you meth mouth is as foreign to them as it is to diet-soda drinkers. (See meth/diet-soda mouth here.)

5. JFK Probably Did Meth, Too

The article points out that Adolf Hitler was given shots of methamphetamine by his quack doctor. The Nazis have not been alone in this regard. America’s President John F. Kennedy had the same done by his quack doctor, Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobsen. Jacobsen even accompanied Kennedy to his 1961 summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It is unclear what type of amphetamine Jacobsen used in Kennedy’s mood-boosting shots, but an autopsy of another one of his patients revealed organs littered with methamphetamine.

Kennedy performed well despite his use of speed, as did the Nazi soldier in the Huffington Post article who wrote home begging for methamphetamine. (To see what Huffington Post defines as begging go here.) The Nazi soldier was Heinrich Boll. After the war Boll went on to write over 50 books and win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. This should not be surprising because, as the drug policy historian Edward M. Brecher has written, a large portion of the population was using amphetamines with little apparent misuse in the 1940s and 1950s. It was available without prescription until 1954 and was widely used by truck drivers and students to stay awake. And as fellow meth-media critic Jack Shafer has pointed out, the abuse that did occur was usually done swallowing pills of known potency and purity … unlike the smoking and injecting of adulterated amphetamines the drug war has now engendered. 

Nothing in my article should be interpreted to belittle the tragedy of methamphetamine addiction, but to focus only on anecdotal stories of those suffering from extreme addiction produces a bizarrely skewed perception. If the only drinkers portrayed in the media were severe alcoholics, alcohol would be just as appalling to those with no experience with it. (It would arguably be even more appalling than meth if it too was forced onto the black market. Alcohol prohibition’s equivalent of makeshift meth labs produced alcohol that caused blindness, paralysis and death.)

By equating methamphetamine with Nazis, the Huffington Post has added to the sinister lore surrounding meth. This non-stop demonization and sensationalizing keeps the drug war going. It encourages people to believe that the locus of addiction is in the evil substance and not the user. It encourages people to believe that incarcerating every user and everybody in the supply-chain is better than helping the addicted with their underlying afflictions.

The drug war has had no effect on addiction rates, but it has cost Mexico alone over 50,000 lives in the last six years—over 10 times as many American lives lost in the Iraq war. It has turned large sections of our cities into wastelands and resulted in the mass incarceration of America’s black men. It has eroded the Bill of Rights like nothing else in America’s history. It is high time that someone sensationalized these evils.

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Robert Arthur is a former inner-city teacher and public defender. Feral House published his book, You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos, in 2013. He writes and does political cartoons at his blog, Narco Polo.