Amphetamine: Know your stuff, NZ with KnowYourStuffNZ

This central nervous stimulant will get your heart and brain working overtime. Its common names are upper; speed; study buddy; pep pills; college crack; little blue babies.

A pile of amphetamine powder, a couple of blue and white capsules, and a white pill
Amphetamine capsules, pills, and powder. Image source: Dan 24/7

Amphetamine increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine (or adrenaline) in the brain, making it suited to people who want to be more alert, productive, and physically active. It’s an active ingredient in prescription drugs like Adderall (used to treat conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy. Due to the moderate risk of forming a dependence to amphetamine, it’s legally classified as a Class B controlled substance.

Amphetamine and methamphetamine are chemically very similar, making the effects on our central nervous systems very similar. One study comparing the two showed slightly lower heart rates and sense of a ‘high’ among people who took amphetamine.

Read more about the study comparing the effects of the two drugs on the National Library of Medicine website

Essentially, the key non-medical difference lies in the social perceptions of these drugs: while amphetamine is a common ingredient in prescription medication that allows it to be legally taken, moral panic about methamphetamine and people that take it has largely pushed its use into the shadows.

Listen to Dr Carl Hart explain the blurred chemical line (but very distinct social line) between amphetamine and methamphetamine in this short interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC:

Amphetamine can be manufactured into a powder, paste, crystal, or liquid, which allows for various forms of consumption (e.g. oral, smoking or injecting). As a powder, it can be white or brown coloured, and sometimes has traces of grey or pink. It has a bitter taste and can smell sweet or like ammonia, or be odourless.

What may aid your brain may hinder your body

In low doses, amphetamine has been found to improve cognition in healthy adults, including aiding long-term and working memory, and some aspects of attention. There’s also evidence that it can help to motivate people to do tasks or work and increase alertness. While it doesn’t make your brain better per se, it does heighten focus which can make it easier to endure boring tasks.

Recreational amphetamine doseage

Dose Weight (Taken Orally) Dose Weight (Snorted)
Light Dose 7.5-20 milligrams 6-15 milligrams
Common Dose 20-40 milligrams 15-30 milligrams
High Dose 40-70 milligrams 30-50 milligrams
Dangerous Dose >70 milligrams >50 milligrams

The effects of amphetamine will vary depending on your body’s metabolism and tolerance for it, in addition to your weight. A light dose is advisable for anyone who weighs 80 kilograms or less.

We recommend that anyone trying amphetamine starts with a light dose (around 5 milligrams or less) and goes slowly until you know how your body responds. Keep checking your heart rhythm for significant slowing or quickening in the first couple of hours after taking amphetamine before deciding whether to re-dose. You can always take a little bit more if you want a more intense experience, but you can’t take less once you’ve already taken it.

Be sure to tell someone you trust how much you’ve taken so they can help if you start to feel overwhelmed. If you do start to feel overwhelmed by the effects, sit or lie down and try to relax. The effects will probably peak after about three hours and can last up to six hours after snorting amphetamine or up to about eight after swallowing it.

In low to moderate doses, amphetamine (and other stimulants) can cause

  • heightened concentration
  • sweating
  • anxiety
  • prolonged wakefulness, followed by a ‘crash’ of mood and energy
  • suppressed appetite
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)

High doses of amphetamine can result in

  • stroke
  • heart attack
  • psychosis
  • seizures

Generally, amphetamine will be detectable in your body for about 24 hours after taking it but expect a large dose to stick around in your body for up to four days.

When to call for help

Your brain’s neurotransmitters can only handle so much amphetamine before things go into overdrive. High doses of it will increase dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin to levels that will interfere with your heart and have psychological effects. Call the ambulance as soon as you see any of the following:

  • tremors or convulsions
  • confusion
  • aggression
  • hallucinations
  • nausea and/or vomiting and/or abdominal cramps
  • a panic state
  • irregular; extra fast; or extra slow heart rhythm

Insomnia-induced psychosis is the worst

Of course, there’s a downside to this superpower. High doses of amphetamine can lead to insomnia. Being awake for 24 hours and then having a full recovery sleep every now and again isn’t too terrible in the grand scheme of things. However, after 24 hours anxiety, body aches, changes to how you perceive sensory things like touch and hearing, and hallucinations start to kick in. After 72 hours you can become fully delusional.

Diagram of timeline of insomnia, going from visual distortions and anxiety at the 24 hour mark to hallucinations and delusions at the 72 hour mark
Timeline of insomnia. 0 Stars, do not recommend. Also, ‘somatosensory’ is how you detect things in terms of touch, temperature, where your body is in space, and pain. So, things to do with your body. Source: Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Toward Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake by Waters, Chiu, Atkinson, and Blom

You need sleep to defrag and reboot your mental computer, as well as help your body heal. While you might feel alert as you’re going into the third day of your bender, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

How to keep an ambulance ride out of your amphetamine experience

An overdose of amphetamine can bring on a range of symptoms, but it’s rare for it to lead to death. There are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe during and after taking amphetamine.

Water is your friend

Drink plenty of water while you’re taking amphetamine because it will dehydrate you. This is particularly important if you’re using it as a physical performance enhancer, because you may be more vulnerable to injury if your muscle tissue is dehydrated.

Alcohol and amphetamine don’t mix

Drinking alcohol while taking amphetamine is a Very Bad Idea…

Alcohol is loosely classed as a ‘downer’, while amphetamine is an ‘upper’, so they both mask and intensify the effects of each other. As a result, it will be harder to gauge levels of intoxication from each drug – you could be close to giving yourself alcohol poisoning while still not feeling very drunk at all, and the damage to your organs may be higher – both while on the drugs and long-term.

Also, you’ll be more prone to dehydration if you’re drinking alcohol while amphetamine is in your system

Watch your blood pressure

If you have pre-existing heart or blood pressure problems, we recommend avoiding amphetamines and other stimulants except as prescribed by a healthcare practitioner.

Taking amphetamine on a regular basis can increase blood pressure, which is basically your heart pushing more blood through your blood vessels than what they can cope with. This causes things like heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, and vision loss through the thickening of blood vessels in the eyes.

We started with nasal inhalers, now we’re here

Illustrated ad for Benzedrine inhalers from the 1940s showing people going about their lives with Benzedrine inhalers up their nose.
An advertisement for Benzedrine from 1944 shows ordinary adults using Benzedrine inhalers as they go about their daily lives. Image credit:

Amphetamine was discovered by a chemist called Dr Gordan Alles. It became commercially available in the United States as a medicine in the 1930s under the market name Benzedrine. Benzedrine was initially sold over the counter as a nasal inhaler to treat narcolepsy or nasal congestion, but word soon got around that a strip of paper in the inhalers offered a euphoric high and sales among the general public soared.

Unsurprisingly, the ubiquity of amphetamine in licit and illicit markets led to amphetamine abuse being on the radar of medical practitioners. It was officially recognised in the 1950s as a condition in need of treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration clamped down on this, banning the inhalers in 1965. Amphetamine was legally classified as a controlled substance in the United States six years later.

Large amounts of amphetamines were supplied to soldiers in the Second World War and the Vietnam War to help them feel invincible going into battle. This boosted production of the drug and resulted in a large surplus after the Second World War, most of which made it to the illicit market, but some was legally prescribed to treat depression and obesity.

Amphetamine is once again a feature of university life as it was in the 1930s. An article in Times magazine titled ‘Pep poisoning’ is a classic example of moral panic with its depiction of Benzedrine as a harmful drug poisonous to both students’ bodies and orderly society. Fast forward to today, and you’ll see evidence in the documentary Take Your Pills (on Netflix) of how it’s still integral to American college students’ lives today, both academically and socially.

The article ‘Amphetamine, past and present – a pharmacological and clinical perspective’ in the Journal of Pharmacology provides an interesting discussion about the history of amphetamine, and a long-read by Jesse Hicks on the Science History website explores the early days of amphetamine as a treatment for colds.

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