5 Groups Who Love Their 'Uppers,' AKA Speed, and You Might Be Surprised by Who They Are

The popular image of the toothless tweaker living in a trailer park in Oklahoma or Indiana obscures a much broader history of amphetamine use, encompassing remarkably diverse populations of speed users around the world and through the decades. What seems to tie them all together is their resort to the stimulant to increase productivity and performance, whether for work or pleasure. Amphetamines are great for that, at least at first, and at least in moderation. The tremors, paranoia, obsessions, and even psychotic episodes are a pretty mean downside. Still, a lot of groups of people have managed to overlook that downside and get a lot of things done.

Here are five amphetamine subcultures that defy the stereotype.

1. Major League baseball players. Long before the hulking steroid-gobbling long-ball hitters and the human growth hormone scandals, professional baseball players were getting jacked up on "greenies," prescription dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) for that little extra edge in the midst of the months-long grind that is the pro baseball season. As Nathan Michael Corzine explains in Team Chemistry: The History of Drugs and Alcohol in Major League Baseball, ball players had been exposed to amphetamines in the armed forces during World War II, and speed was on the locker-room menu beginning in the late 1940s. "All the trainers in all the ball parks had them," recalled Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner. "You needed to perform your best, and you were going to use everything that's legal to help you do it." Dexedrine and Benzedrine fired up generations of ball players before largely fading from the sport in the 1990s, just as new performance enhancers were making their appearance.

2. American long-haul truck drivers. After being exposed to amphetamines courtesy of the military in WWII, some of those returning vets came home and got behind the wheels of big rigs, where they burned up the highways cranked out of their minds on speed. Stimulant use was an embedded industry practice, tied to success in the highly competitive and as yet unregulated business where drivers needed artificial help to stay at the controls for long hours. Tightening up on amphetamines in 1970, restrictions on hours driven, and widespread drug testing diminished, but did not end the trucker speed culture. The speeding truck driver was memorialized in any number of trucking songs, including most famously Dave Dudley's Six Days on the Road ("I've been taking little white pills, my eyes are opened wide."). And here's one for the road: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen doing the wry, plaintive I Took Three Bennies and My Semi Truck Won't Start:

3. European competitive cyclists. Even before the beginning of the 20th century, European cyclists seeking performance enhancement were using a variety of stimulants, including caffeine, cocaine, ether, nitroglycerine, and strychnine to gain that competitive edge. Welsh cyclist Arthur Linton dropped dead after ingesting the stimulant Trimethyl during the Paris-Bordeaux race in 1886. As Corzine notes in Team Chemistry, by 1939, sports medicine practitioners were remarking on the widespread use of Benzedrine, and after WWII, it only got worse. For the 1960 Tour de France, the estimate was that three-quarters of the racers were on speed. That same year, during the Rome Olympics, Danish cyclist Knut Jensen died of a lethal combination of amphetamines and heat. Cycling may have sped away from speed since then, but performance-enhancing drugs remain a hot issue in the sport.

4. Gay bathhouse bros (PnP). For at least the last 20 years, mainly in the large coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, gay men coming out of the clubbing drug scene have been introduced to meth and hooking up to "Party and Play" (PnP) in another distinct amphetamine subculture. Many are high-functioning professionals who are weekend-only users (until they're not), and meth helps them take maximum advantage of their time off with extended eroticism. It has the side-effect of impairing judgment, which has led to sex ed campaigns encouraging safer sex practices. Groups like Tweakers.org, now funded by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, address this community. Here's a taste of their imagery:


5. Japanese industrial workers. Since Japanese chemist Nagayoshi Nagai first synthesized methamphetamine in 1893 and Japanese chemist Akira Ogata synthesized crystal meth via the red phosphorus method in 1919, it is only fitting that Japan would be the site of the first civilian amphetamine epidemic. As with other armed forces, including the Americans, the Japanese military supplied speed to its soldiers, and as Bernard Cook noted in Women and War, with the men at war, women were drafted into factory work. They faced harsh conditions with no pay and little food, but they were given meth to reduce hunger, produce happiness and combat fatigue. After the war, "military stockpiles of amphetamines flooded an extremely depressed and disillusioned but determined and growth-oriented civilian population," according to Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar in Amphetamine Use, Abuse, and Misuse (1979). Those amped-up Japanese factory workers helped fuel Nippon's economic rebound in the 1950s and '60s.

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