The Annotated MAD MEN: Uppers, Bennies, Black Beauties, Speed

This week Don Draper and friends enjoyed the effects of an 'energy serum.' You probably know it best as speed, the drug that won WWII and birthed the Beat Generation.

In this week’s Mad Men the employees at the as yet unnamed new iteration of SDCP hit a long weekend of work with the help of a shot of amphetamines in the ass. The doctor claimed that his ‘energy serum’ was a blend of vitamins, but it was probably almost all speed - the most egalitarian drug of the 20th century. Used by presidents as well as twitching junkies on the street, amphetamines helped win World War II, launched the Beat Generation and created a scourge of addiction and violence in our nation’s cities.

Amphetamine is not a natural drug, and it was first synthesized in 1887 by Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu. Nobody quite knew what to do with the chemical, and it wasn’t made widely commercially available until 1932 in the form of Benzadrine inhalers intended to help with colds, allergies and hay fever. It didn’t take long for the drug’s stimulating effect to become obvious, and by 1935 it was being used to treat everything from narcolepsy to opiate addiction.

WWII was where amphetamines really took off. Speed is the ultimate military drug. It offers laser focus, important in combat. It demolishes exhaustion, one of the soldier’s greatest enemies. It mitigates fear and self-doubt. And taken enough, and at high enough doses, it leads to unbridled, unstoppable aggression. A soldier popping enough uppers will be tireless, fearless, and absolutely ramped up to kill as many motherfuckers as possible.

Some estimates say that the Brits handed out 72 million amphetamine doses to its military. Speed was a regular part of US Army supplies. Japanese kamikaze pilots would be hopped up before their suicide missions. And not to be outdone, the Germans were handing out not amphetamines but methamphetamines - crystal meth, as known to Breaking Bad fans, first synthesized in Japan in 1920 - to its panzer divisions. Some say that Adolph Hitler took a half dozen injections of meth every day.

Some uppers, like caffeine, are habituating. Not amphetamines - they’re straight up addictive. That means many GIs came home from the war hooked on speed, bringing its abuse to the streets of America.

It was in those post-war years that the Beat Generation found speed. In 1945 Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer and Allen Ginsberg were hanging out with William Burroughs at an apartment on 115th Street in Manhattan when Burrough’s friend, a junkie prostitute named Vickie Russell, introduced the group to Benzedrine inhalers. She cracked open the inhaler, revealing a cotton strip that had been soaked in amphetamines. That strip would either be chewed up or dipped in a cup of coffee - the hot liquid would help the speed set in even faster.

Speed was the drug that defined the Beats. It gave them energy, it made them feel like intellectual giants, it allowed them to constantly, endlessly, tirelessly move forward in search of the “New Vision” Kerouac was after. The stream of consciousness poetry, the shambolic structure, the rhythmic pulse of the writing - all of it stemmed from the blossoming electricity of speed.


Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg

There really is no other drug like speed. It’s an extraordinary high, making you feel invulnerable, like a superman. Energy is an endless resource, so bountiful you never even stop and think about it. Stopping, in fact, is hard - you get jittery and anxious and feel like you’re about to explode. Your brain moves as fast as your body. Filters drop, and so you’re flooded with ideas and thoughts, associations move freely without checking in at the brain border guards of taste, decency, logic or quality. It’s exhilarating to feel every barrier in your head drop and a million ideas - almost all of them bad, dumb or a combination of the two - come flooding forward. Ironically, all of this intense energy and imagination is combined with an incredible focus. People who abuse ADHD drugs (descendents of the same drugs given to GIs in WWII, Korea and Vietnam)  to study know this exactly, the way you can sit down and beam directly into a book while your entire being vibrates with life.

Speed is amazing. It’s also horrible. It tears you to pieces physically, leaving you run down and exhausted. You don’t eat while you’re on speed - you’re just not hungry, and sometimes the very idea of eating seems alien - and so speed freaks get skinny and sickly. You have all the energy in the world and all this focus, but no judgment. You begin focusing on stupid things, small things, slights and hurts. And you get paranoid. Your brain goes a million miles a minute and then it finds a track that tells you others want to hurt you. That they’re out to get you. And you begin focusing on that. And you become obsessive.

Ginsberg later in life spoke out strongly against speed. Talking to the LA Free Press in 1965, Ginsberg said

"Speed is antisocial, paranoid making, it's a drag... all the nice gentle dope fiends are getting screwed up by the real horror monster Frankenstein speed freaks who are going round stealing and bad-mouthing everybody."

By 1969 speed use had become an epidemic. It was cheap and easy to acquire, and it appealed to the kinds of criminals and assholes you least wanted wired and violent at 4 in the morning. But speed wasn’t just a street drug. It was firmly ensconced in the medical world as well.

Housewives became speed freaks because their diet pills were loaded with various chemical uppers. President John F Kennedy took multiple doses of speed daily. And as seen in Mad Men, plenty of ‘Dr. Feelgood’ types were happy to load up businessmen, pilots, scientists, truckers - anybody who wanted ‘a boost.’ While other drugs got all the headlines - acid, weed, coke - speed was the backbone of the second half of the 20th century, and may have been the most pernicious drug epidemic of the time.

By 1965 the FDA banned Benzedrine inhalers and made amphetamines prescription-only. In 1971 the Controlled Substances Act made it a Schedule II drug (hilariously, marijuana is in the much worse Schedule I category, alongside heroin and DMT). In the 1970s speed had slipped into being a real white trash drug, made by bikers and sold to truckers who needed to stay awake on long hauls. The era of indiscriminate ‘energy serum’ injections had pretty much come to an end. And as the meth epidemic began to sweep the country in the 90s and 00s, even fairly mild over the counter stimulants were being severely restricted.

And now enjoy this video of a totally wired Ken Cogrove dancing to Daft Punk.

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