The Netflix Documentary 'Take Your Pills' Dives Deep Into The Complicated History Of Prescription Drugs
Amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to curb symptoms of ADHD, but their "recreational" use, especially among college-age students, has increased dramatically in the last decade. A new Netflix documentary, Take Your Pills, out March 16, examines the modern use of these drugs in our capitalist, hyper-competitive society. They're a perfect match: brain-boosting performance enhancers increasing focus and productivity in a world where individual expectations are high, competition is stiff, and the pressure is on. Take Your Pills suggests that these drugs defining our era, but while that may be true, amphetamines have actually been used and prescribed for years.
As the Netflix doc discusses, use of legal forms of amphetamines, including Ritalin and Adderall, have quintupled since 1995. A study by NCBI reports that in 2005, legal use of the drug surpassed total amphetamine use at the height of the 1960s epidemic, meaning America is using more amphetamines now than at any point in its history. To get a sense of just how major this issue is, here's a brief history of major moments in amphetamine use in the U.S. As Take Your Pills states, the uses and prescriptions of the drugs deserve closer examination, as they're affecting society in drastic ways.
1. It Started Off As A Decongestant
Though amphetamine proper was first synthesized in Germany in 1887, and methamphetamine in 1893 by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi, no one really found any commercial use for the drug until 1933. That's when American pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline, & French put it on the market in inhaler form as Benzedrine, claiming it cured asthma, according to Oxford Academic.
At the time, the pharmaceutical world was just beginning to put requirements and rules into place, asking drug manufacturers to not advertise directly to the public and to provide evidence of claims to the American Medical Association’s Council on Pharmacy. Keep in mind, these were voluntary requirements — no laws were really passed requiring testing of drug safety and proof of efficacy until 1938's Food, Drug, And Cosmetic Act. Meanwhile, Smith, Kline & French provided samples of their inhaler to studies to see if it could cure issues random as menstrual cramps, hay fever, narcolepsy, and the common cold.
2. Panic About College Campus Abuse Came Early
Hand-wringing about college-age amphetamine abuse might seem like a recent phenomenon, but the first panic came back in 1937, when Time published an article called "Pep-Pill Poisoning." Warning that cases of "over-dosage" had been uncovered at the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago, keeping college health directors "in dithers of worry," the article notes the trend of college students using "a new, powerful but poisonous brain stimulant" to cram for finals.
3. WWII Was Fueled By Amphetamines On All Sides
All members of the Axis and Allied powers handed out some form of amphetamines to their armies during WWII. Between 1939 and 1941, Germany handed out over 200 million Pervitin pills to Wehrmacht troops, according to the Daily Mail. Made of pure methamphetamine, aka crystal meth, Pervitin kept German troops awake and marching despite dire side effects.
Britain and Japan handed out amphetamines to units as needed. On Oct. 23, 1942 General Bernard Montgomery gave away over 100,000 pills to British troops before a battle; the British, high on speed, defeated the Germans, who were high on meth, as Military History Now reports.
By 1943 Benzedrine tablets, or "bennies", were part of American G.I. emergency kits. The Pentagon issued over 250 million Benzedrine tablets to troops to keep them alert. And like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, another wartime staple, the use of amphetamines came home with the troops and spread throughout post-war American culture, according to Thrillist.
4. 'On The Road' Wasn't Written On Amphetamines...
...but a heck of a lot of other Beat Generation poems and books were. Contrary to popular rumor, The New Yorker reports that Jack Kerouac was fueled by coffee, not speed, when he sat down to type the now-infamous 120-foot long scroll that was the first draft of On The Road.
5. Jesse Spano's Infamous 'Saved By The Bell' Moment
Speaking of coffee... one of Saved By The Bell's most memorable moments makes a lot more sense (and seems a lot less silly) on learning the original script had Jesse hooked on something stronger than caffeine pills. In a Vulture excerpt from I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True, the show's executive producer explains Jesse was originally popping amphetamine. "We kept the episode virtually the same, but swapped out the speed. I wasn’t pleased about it—after all, the average caffeine pill was the equivalent of a cup of coffee, if that, so we might as well have had Jessie get addicted to earl grey."
6. It Inspired A Lot Of Snappy Tunes
There are so many songs inspired by uppers, including the above, a 1947 number by Harry Gibson that directly name-checks Benzadrine (which admittedly is a pretty easy rhyme.) Even Fred Astaire gets in on the act with his version of On The Beam, a cheery number that includes lyrics "I'm like the B-19/Loaded with Benzedrine/When I come on the scene/I bust a hole in the sky!" Well, now.
7. The '50s Were A Boom Time For Pep Pills, And A Bust For Users
Smith, Kline, & French's patent on Benzedrine expired in 1949, and suddenly the market exploded with all sorts of combinations and new uses for amphetamines. The two most popular were Dexedrine, marketed as an anti-depressant, and a slew of different "weight loss pills" capitalizing on amphetamines' side effect of appetite suppression. With the rise in new use came a lot of new and increasingly hard-to-ignore evidence confirming negative side effects, including addiction, physical dependence, and scariest of all, "amphetamine psychosis", a specific set of paranoid delusions based solely on cumulative amphetamine use.
By the late '60s, out of the 8-10 billion pills in circulation, up to half were "diverted" from medical channels, sold directly to consumers as unregulated diet or weight loss pills, according to NCBI.
8. Amphetamine Use Wasn't Actually Regulated Until 1970
Due to the rise in side effects, in 1965 the FDA tried tightening amphetamine prescription requirements, but it was nearly unenforceable. NCBI reports that it wasn't until 1971 that amphetamines were officially declared Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act, putting them in the same category as opium, morphine, and cocaine.
9. It's Making A Big Comeback Today, Legally And Illegally
The mid-'80s saw a rise in meth production that continues to devastate America's rural areas today. TV show Breaking Bad, about a teacher-turned-meth-producer, reflected the phenomenon, but was blamed by some in the UK for an increase in the drug's popularity. In an odd twist, amphetamines also saw a legal boom around the same time.
Their most popular side effect, increased energy and focus, was never really considered for medical application. But following increased acceptance of ADD and later, ADHD as legitimate diagnoses by the American Psychiatric Association, amphetamines came back in a big way.
Take Your Pills examines this drug's split identity — when does treatment become enhancement? Are either truly necessary, or just the result of a society pushing us to work harder and faster for less? And if enhancement isn't itself negative, what about all the known physical costs? These questions won't be resolved any time soon, but now is the time to ask them and pay attention to the answers.