A Poison to the World

AlterNet : How America Turned into a Nation of Speedfreaks
By Mick Farren, Feral House

Posted on December 26, 2010, Printed on December 28, 2010

The following is an excerpt from Mick Farren’s new book, Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine (Feral House, 2010)

In the fullness of history, all the different varieties of speed may have been products of the twentieth century, even though they are still around nearly a decade into the twenty-first, and show no sign of waning. Speed is too much of a reflection of its time. The twentieth century was an era of acceleration. Humanity went from its first powered flight to a moon landing in less than 70 years. Two atomic weapons were deliberately detonated over inhabited cities, while other cities were turned into unstoppable firestorms by tons of conventional explosives dropped from high-flying aircraft. Millions died in two devastating world wars, and millions more in smaller wars, insurrections, and ethnic cleansings. We have seen the computer grow from a mechanical adding machine to an entity so powerful and omnipresent that speculation is now possible about the likelihood of machines merging identities with humanity.

The event of rock & roll added a frenetic thrashing drive to the world’s entertainment, and television warped the world’s perception. The twentieth century was an era of massive overreaching that culminated in us pushing our planet to the very edge of environmental catastrophe, as melting icecaps change the course of the ocean tides. The twentieth century was also a time of scarcely believable greed and all too grandiose dreams. The developed nations of the West demanded more and more, and we grew furious if TV commercials reneged on their promises and we couldn’t instantly have it all. The West grew fat even as famines decimated developing nations. We burned energy as if there was no tomorrow, and in so doing, made tomorrow considerably more problematic. And this was where speed found its place, introducing itself to greedy dreams on all levels of twentieth-century culture with seductive assurances of free additional energy, enhancing stamina that enabled users to keep goin!

g like the bunny in battery commercial, and feel a euphoric omnipotence as the need to eat, sleep, or even feel anything unwontedly profound were removed by the insulating effects of amphetamine. One could even lose radical weight with no effort of will, and become fashionably slim. Adolf Hitler’s doctor shot him up with cocktails of speed and the devil only knew what else, as he designed the blitzkrieg, in his greed for the absolute power he believed would enable him to annex the entire planet for his master race, and organized the deaths of tens of millions.

Jack Kennedy’s doctor shot him up with similar hellish cocktails, but during the Cuba missile crisis, Kennedy was able to steer a course through the nuclear minefield of mutually assured destruction, save the lives of hundreds of millions, and set America on the course for that first moment on the moon, and inspire aspirations to the mastery of space and the universe. The Beatles popped pills from a German pharmacy, and played endless, hour on/hour off shows to drunken sailors and their whores, in pimp-infested cellars on Hamburg’s red-light Reeperbahn, while dreaming of the kind of rock & roll fame only achieved by Elvis Presley, who had swallowed his mother’s diet pills while attempting to understand why fate had dealt him such a bizarre hand of cards, and why so many millions of people wanted a part of him. Hugh Hefner popped pills and turned the airbrushed nudity of invitingly contorted although he supposedly rarely slept in his heyday, he ran a quasi-erotic empire from his circular bed. The honeymoon promises of speed became part of the underpinnings of many of the grand illusions and monstrous debacles of the time. The way in which both the Nazi and Imperial Japanese war machines placed a major reliance on the drug to provide them with indefatigable storm troopers, and kamikazes who didn’t fear death. Amphetamines have woven a hidden but ubiquitous thread through the entire history of the twentieth century and have been a factor in some of its most chaotic episodes.


In many ways the story of amphetamine itself, and the course followed by the typical speedfreak are natural parallels. Both start with a sense of euphoria, an optimistic energy that a solution has been found, and that all things are possible. Speed promises something for nothing and tears down normal boundaries, but as time passes, a form of entropy begins to take its toll, and circumstances start to appear less and less rational.

When Benzedrine first went on sale in the 1930s, it was without too much fanfare, but the drug was quickly adopted on multiple levels of society. Its potential to give an instant boost appealed to a variety of people in a whole range of occupations. Even before World War II, intimations were already being noticed that maybe speed wasn’t quite the wonder drug of first impression. More and more had to be consumed to achieve the same result. The drug became too central to the lives of those using it, and some found it hard to decide if they were speeding to live, or for nothing, and that ultimately a price would have to be paid. Women who used speed to make them witty and vivacious, and to gain the perfect figure were the first to realize that slim and tireless could all too easily turn into emaciated and insane. Athletes who used the drug to give them an edge found that not only was the supposed edge illusionary and easily blunted, but that their overall game began to disintegrate. Lovers who took speed for the sexual rush found that it was a hit and miss blessing, and tended to distort the true nature of the underlying relationship.

Artists who made amphetamine central to their creativity found that speed was also becoming central to their art and actually limiting its potential, or, as in the case of director and choreographer Bob Fosse, if they were able to maintain the furious pace permitted by taking more and more of the drug, and corral all the random ideas that came with it, their bodies gave out on them. Speed is a highly narcissistic drug, artificially inflating the sense of self as the intrusion of external stimuli is progressively reduced.

In an inspired piece of narcissism, Fosse made the film All That Jazz as a quasi-autobiography, and a frighteningly accurate prophecy of his own heart attack and death. The audience is shown Roy Scheider as Fosse, simultaneously editing a major motion picture, casting and directing a Broadway show, and carrying on disastrous affairs with a number of women. He smokes cigarettes in the shower, he swallows Dexedrine, and even though his mind drifts into eerie silences, he refuses to halt his headlong charge. In the end his heart gives out and he dies on the operating table. His death is played as an elaborate singing/dancing production number set to the Everly Brothers’ tune “Bye living to speed. The realization gradually dawned that it was perhaps an illusion that one could get something playmates into a twentieth century institution, and Bye Love”–with it’s the ominous line at the end the chorus, “I think I’m gonna die.”

Although Bob Fosse’s real life was undoubtedly shortened by his frenzied use of speed to keep up with an impossible workload, a rule does emerge that speedfreaks with a mission, a purpose, or an occupation tend to handle the drug better than those without. Long distance truckers and other traditional amphetamine users show less damage from speed than kids getting out of their minds on crank while staring into a TV, playing video games, or simply vibrating to the latest in thrash metal. The essential difference between the rock & rollers of the 1960s and 1970s, and the tweakers of the 1990s and twenty-first century is that the rockers–not only The Beatles, The Who, and The Clash, but many, many, more–used the drug as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The question the Montana Meth Project fails to address is that, if an unreal percentage of young people in Montana are using crystal meth, and showing signs of damage, maybe there’s something wrong with Montana. If crystal meth is the strongest and most satisfying stimulant they can find, their horizons have to be depressingly narrow, and other sources of stimulation few and far between.

Speed creates a restless impatience that, unless channelled, can simply turn on the user and make itself the sole fixation of his and her life. The drug takes over like an all consuming obsession that seems preferable to some deadend, minimum-wage job. A barrage of media promotion, both above and below the radar, attempts to program adolescents to be passive consumers. Discontent and natural youth rebellion, if they haven’t already been dulled and distorted by the Ritalin and Adderall prescribed for them in school, is channelled into the electronic pseudo-aggression of Grand Theft Auto. For a kid in these circumstances, a first speed encounter must feel like revelation of previously undreamed of depth. A myriad of illusions present themselves, but the truth is that they remain illusions.

The trouble really starts when the speedfreak discovers, through long days and jagged sleepless nights, that a life wholly based on the consumption of crystal meth is, in reality, mind-snappingly boring. It becomes a cycle of running franticly with the drug or desperately crashing, while the total disorganization of the speedfreak’s grasshopper thought processes, and the criminal milieu in which the illegality of meth forces him or her to exist, is the source of a multitude of nagging fears and paranoia. Inevitably a full divorce from reality will come in the form of some full blown psychotic episode. Most of the time this tearing of the emotional fabric will not manifest itself in anything more than shaking, alone in a room, wide-eyed and temporarily lost to everything rational, or going out on the street and screaming to the sun, moon or an invisible friend, a variation of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Unless blind luck somehow holds, the freaker !
will be spotted up by the police, arrested, and become one more statistic in the methedrine-related crime figures.

Only the truly exceptional cases of amphetamine psychosis– like the terminally demented speedfreak in San Diego who stole the Abrams tank, went on his car-crushing, solo destruction derby, and was shot by the cops for his trouble–make it onto the TV news. A character like Andrew Cunanan, the gay, speedfreak killer of the ultrasuccessful fashion designer Gianni Versace, is the exception rather than the rule. The three-month, cross-country killing spree that Cunanan undertook in the summer of 1997 has been frequently cited as a “typical” result of long-term methamphetamine use. Nothing is typical about Cunanan’s homicidal drive to Florida during which he murdered two former lovers, Jeffrey Trail and David Madson, and also Lee Miglin, a Chicago real estate millionaire, and the unfortunate William Reese, who Cunanan killed simply to steal his truck as a replacement vehicle.

After Cunanan stalked and killed Versace, pumping two shots into the back of the designer’s head as he entered his mansion home, he holed up on a Florida houseboat, and finally killed himself with a single shot in the mouth. All analysis of his behavior were therefore made postmortem, without any questioning or study of Cunanan’s motivation or mindset, or any other mental disorders from which he might have suffered. The point was repeatedly made at the time that Cunanan appeared to take an unholy delight in killing, and that he was driven by an enduring and inescapable rage. He wrapped one victim’s head in duct tape, before stabbing him in the chest with pruning sheers, beating him, and cutting his throat with a hack saw. Not content with all of that, Cunanan repeatedly drove over the body until it was pulped. To attribute all this to the effects of methamphetamine is both implausible and shortsighted, in that it is so simplistic it adds nothing to our understanding of future spree killers.

Cunanan biographer Maureen Orth quotes a supposed acquaintance of the killer called Vance Coukou-lis in her 1999 book Vulgar Favors, but in so doing, she plays not only into the demonization of speed-users, but also into a serious level of homophobia: “It’s a sex drug, and all it does is just heighten your whole sexual feeling about a million times.” He also adds that, “It makes you think about sex 24 hours a day. The whole system’s become so promiscuous it’s frightening. I believed in the devil after I got involved with the gay society and crystal meth, and then I realized evil existed in human nature and that human nature can be of good or of evil, and I really believe in evil now. Period. And I believe an evil spirit can overtake people, and I believe that’s what happened to Andrew. He changed through the use of that drug.”


To anthropomorphize a chemical and then make it fully responsible for an episode of homicidal psychosis is simply sensationalism at its worst. Plus, it totally matches the most luridly cynical drug warrior propaganda, and clouds any real truth about why Cunanan did what he did. It overlooks how the repeated and seemingly unstoppable crystal meth epidemics that regularly sweep the country are actually created by the blind, single-mindedness, and poor long-term planning by the DEA, and all the other branches of federal and local law enforcement waging the War On Drugs. Maybe all that stands repeating is that the War on Drugs has been waged for more than 70 years, and the mess created by recreational drug use while it remains outlawed but unchecked and unregulated, grows more debilitating and chaotic each year and each decade.

One day, sooner or later, the War On Drugs will end. All indications are that the end will come later rather than sooner, but nothing so farcically unworkable can survive forever. Although, from today’s perspective, any cessation of these domestic hostilities may look impossible when one considers the number and size of the vested interests in what one wag dubbed the “drug enforcement industry,” and the vast corporate profits that are made on the back of the status quo from everything from the supply of elaborate high-tech equipment to cops and agents, to outsourced private prisons. The United States has the dubious honor of being the worlds biggest jailer, with the highest per capita prison population of any country–some 738 per 100,000 of its citizens. During 2006 the total federal, state, and local adult correctional population rose to over 7.2 million, which is about 3.2 percent of the US adult population, or one in every 31 adults. Although only one quarter of prison i!
nmates have been convicted of drug offences, estimates of those in jail for drug-related crimes runs as high as a massive 80 percent of the entire prison population. Combine these prison numbers with the figures for drug related deaths, the cumulated billions spent on the Drug War, and its overall ineffectiveness, and if only to retain one’s sanity, the hope has to be that the American people eventually elect an administration that has the courage to heed the Drug Policy Alliance’s basic tenets of harm reduction–“There has never been, is not now, and never will be a drug-free society. Harm reduction approach acknowledges that there is no ultimate solution to the problem of drugs in a free society, and that many different interventions may work. Those interventions should be based on science, compassion, health and human rights.”

Despite all the continuing furor over methamphetamine, it is likely, whether the War On Drugs continues or not, that the current crank epidemic will tail off, and although speed will probably be with us in any foreseeable future, it will not be grabbing the same screaming headlines.

Drug panics would appear to be subject to a kind of natural entropy and will fade away of their own accord. In the latter half of the 1970s, angel dust–the popular name for the animal tranquilizer PCP–was public enemy number one among illegal drugs. At the time, the media couldn’t get enough of stories about angel dust users being overwhelmed by nightmare hallucinations and fighting off police with the strength of 10, but by the mid-to-late 1980s, angel dust was forgotten, and crack cocaine had taken its place as the major source of drug panic–even though the CIA and the Iran-Contra conspiracy was assisting its spread in major cities like Los Angeles.

This is not to say that crack and angel dust vanished from the face of the Earth. They simply became another drug in the market place. Like so much else in contemporary society, drug use is subject to the fluctuations of fad and fashion. A media drug panic indicates that the same drug is also enjoying a street level vogue, but vogues tend to be short-lived and fickle. Peripheral users are temporarily drawn to the drug, but for many, the novelty soon wears off, and they move on to other highs. Deaths occur among the hardcore, others are busted and imprisoned, some seek cures, and still more simply give up. The media can also prove as fickle as fashion, and drug panic stories quickly grow tired. Once out of the spotlight, a drug epidemic is frequently revealed not to be as bad as was first imagined, as soon as its free of the shock-horror items on TV news. The very same thing could happen with crys tal meth. While speed presents an unquestionably serious problem, especially in!
suburban and rural areas, there is a reasonable chance that many of the current generation of Middle American speeds freaks will grow out of their selfdestructive obsession. The chances will improve greatly, if instead of demonizing these people as meth monsters, they are given a shot at an education, and more positive choices of ways to spend their time and lives.

We are still in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the future is not easy to predict. Planet Earth currently holds out little cause for optimism, but one thing is for sure. Things will change, and very little is going to stay the same. Methamphetamine may have actually bottomed out with these crystal meth epidemics.

All the promise once looked for in speed has become history, and now, even to the perception of other parts of the drug culture, it is the sole province of hopeless, Jerry Springer, untutored trailer trash. (While we forget that thousands of anonymous and outwardly normal folk take a hit of speed to help them get through the day without anyone noticing.) For all we know, another decade may see a new drug come out of nowhere, and revolutionize our ideas of intoxication to the same degree that acid did in the 1960s, when acidheads seemed little short of an alien invasion to the generation that looked for relief in dry martinis. Speed may already be obsolete, except we have nothing quite yet to replace it.

If the day ever came when the drug warriors finally folded their tents and gave up their impossible dream of a drug-free nation, the world would be open to the pharmaceutical corporations actually designing a menu of safe intoxicants that could allow people to get high without the risk of mental, physical, or legal damage. Our culture is already awash in medication. We are sold Prozac and Ativan to take the edge off depression, Viagra as a chemical sex aid, and Ambien or Lunestra to help us sleep. We have specific drugs for twitchy legs and irritable bowels. Advertisements for them crowd the commercial spots on prime time TV selling us cures for ailments we didn’t know existed until they told us about them, and also list the side effects of the cure. Electronics now take such massive strides that it’s possible, within little more than a generation, that direct cortical stimuli or even microscopic nanobots working directly on the receptors and the pleasure centers of the brai!
n might make the ingesting of crude chemicals like amphetamine, alcohol, or even acid, a piece of history quite as quaint as the Victorian taste for opium-based remedies and tinctures.

Even without some science fiction revolution in the very real human need for regular intoxication, the patterns of our drug use in the future will inevitably change, and so will the drugs themselves. New factors will be introduced, and the older needs will be met by other means, or simply fall by the wayside. We have looked at the strange evolution of amphetamine in the twentieth century, from Benzedrine inhalers to super labs, and the way that evolution has impacted all levels of society, from a president in the White House to uneducated, rural teenagers. That this very rapid metamorphosis will suddenly stop can hardly be plausible. So far, it has occurred every time new pressures come to bear, and shows no indication of doing otherwise.

One thing we can certainly count on in the twenty-first century is that we will see a multitude of new and unique pressures. Like it or not, speedfreaks have lived through and contributed to what amounts to a not insignificant historical saga. They are still with us and show no signs of stumbling away or taking their drugs with them. The face of the future speedfreak will be revealed in the fullness of time, and the only guarantee is that it probably won’t be what we expect, because the speed of the future will wholly depend on one single factor.

How crazy do future generations want to be?

Mick Farren is the author of Speed Freak (Feral House, 2010) and more than 40 other books. He’s the former lead singer of The Deviants.