Amphetamines are any of a number of drugs derived from, and including, amphetamine, a stimulant of the central nervous system (CNS). Amphetamine itself is used medically to treat conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity and narcolepsy, while substances in the substituted amphetamine class of drugs derived from amphetamine include prominent recreational drugs including MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamine (commonly known as “crystal meth” or simply “meth”); amphetamine itself is also used recreationally and is often known as “speed”. The legal status of amphetamines varies significantly internationally by specific substance: in the UK amphetamine is a Class B controlled substance (which can be used legally as prescribed by a doctor but is considered illegal outside that use) while certain of the substituted amphetamines, including ecstasy and meth, are Class A controlled substances (the most serious classification, with potentially very severe penalties for possession or supply).
Amphetamines come in a variety of different forms and can be consumed in a number of different ways. Legal, medically approved amphetamine is normally provided in tablet form (though can also be administered intravenously); amphetamines taken recreationally can also come as tablets or capsules (different “brands” of ecstasy are often differentiated by the unique shapes and/or markings of their tablets); as a powder (usually snorted or injected); or in crystalline form (which can be eaten, snorted or in some cases – especially meth – smoked).
Used in accordance with medical instructions, amphetamine can be beneficial to those suffering from the conditions mentioned above; however, when abused, amphetamines can be extremely addictive and their abuse can result in serious damage to health and even death.
Amphetamine was first synthesised in 1887, but its stimulant effects were not discovered until forty years later. Beginning in 1933 it began to be used medicinally, first as a decongestant (under the brand-name Benzedrine) and subsequently to treat a swathe of conditions including obesity, narcolepsy, chronic pain and low blood pressure, and as a libido-enhancer. During WW2, amphetamine and a number of its derivatives were widely used by both sides as stimulants and performance-enhancers; research into its effects during and after the war revealed its addictive qualities and, as a result, at the start of the 1970s authorities across the world began restricting its availability – though by this time amphetamines had become well-established recreational drugs (and had also gained a strong reputation as very effective “diet pills”).
“Speed” was a staple drug of the party scene in the 1960s and 1970s, while ecstasy use boomed in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to be widespread today (with crystalline MDMA increasingly replacing ecstasy tablets); meanwhile, crystal meth has not established itself as firmly in the UK as it has in the USA, Australia and elsewhere with such devastating consequences, but its abuse is growing more common especially within certain subcultures.
Including ecstasy, amphetamines are the third-most-popular recreational drugs in the UK, with 1.5% of Britons aged 16-59 having taken ecstasy, and 0.6% having taken other amphetamines, in 2015/16, according to Home Office statistics; these figures rise to 4.5% and 1.1% respectively within the 16-24 age bracket.
In small doses, amphetamine may produce few or no visible effects. However, at levels which would normally result from recreational use, the user will typically begin to exhibit a number of symptoms, including:
Depending on the method of consumption, a user may also exhibit signs such as red/raw nostrils, or possible nose-bleeds (from snorting); sore eyes (from smoking); or puncture marks in the skin, especially near blood vessels in the inner arms (from injecting).
Frequent amphetamine use can easily become abuse, and subsequently, addiction; someone abusing amphetamine may display any of a number of behavioural symptoms, including:
Meanwhile, physical symptoms of amphetamine abuse can include:
As with any case of substance abuse and addiction, there may also be a number of secondary signs that someone is abusing amphetamines. They may experience financial difficulties and frequently need to borrow money (in the worst cases this may lead to needing to commit crimes to fund their habit) especially if their professional life is impacted. Relationships with family, friends and partners may be damaged, perhaps irreparably, because of their behaviour.
As noted above, there are a number of long-term effects – both physical and mental – of amphetamine abuse which can prove extremely damaging to a user’s health – or even fatal – if s/he is unable to break the habit. As is the case with many substances of abuse, these effects tend to worsen over time – so the earlier a person can reach out for treatment, the better.
Regardless of the form in which they are taken, when consumed regularly amphetamines can have a profound impact on a user’s body. Because they cause an elevated heart rate (especially when the user is exerting his/her body beyond the norm, for example, whilst dancing during “raves” or as a result of prolonged sexual activity) amphetamines can cause serious cardiovascular problems – which in the worst cases can lead to heart attacks and death. This can be exacerbated by another potential effect of long-term abuse: malnutrition. Amphetamines suppress a user’s appetite and – especially when abuse has developed into addiction – can lead to long periods without eating, while the quality of the food which is consumed can be very low (with money being spent on drugs rather than decent sustenance). This – combined with regular, intense grinding of teeth – can also lead to severe (often visible) dental damage. Users also place themselves at greater risk of contracting diseases related to unsanitary living conditions or risky behaviour, including sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS.
As can be seen from the list of symptoms given above, long-term amphetamine abuse can have extremely deleterious effects upon a person’s mental health. Some of these effects – in particular, those impacting on a person’s moods, such as increased aggression and paranoia – tend to manifest only while that person is actively abusing amphetamines and will ease off in time. Unfortunately, there can be long-term effects which last long after a person has given up amphetamines or even permanently, these may include cognitive impairment (reduced intelligence, poor memory etc) and serious emotional disturbances such as depression or even psychosis (stimulant-induced psychotic disorder, which may also occur in an acute form after an overdose). MRIs have shown physical abnormalities in the brains of long-term amphetamine abusers: this drug, in other words, can cause brain damage.
As with any addiction, breaking a dependency upon amphetamines requires a combination of physical treatment and therapy: the former to deal with the immediacy of the drug’s presence in the body, and the latter to tackle the underlying causes of the addiction. When a person stops using amphetamines, as their body reacts to the absence of the drug they will go through a withdrawal phase with a number of unpleasant symptoms including increased anxiety and fatigue, fluctuating appetite, agitation, depression and possible suicidal ideation; it is always recommended that a person goes through the detoxification process with the assistance of a medical professional.
Once the body is free of amphetamines, the recovering addict should engage in a variety of therapies to address the root causes of their substance abuse and dependency. These can include one-to-one and group therapies in a broad range of formats, enabling the addict to build defences against relapse. Nutrition and fitness regimes should also be drawn up to enable him/her to lead a healthier lifestyle, which will have positive psychological effects as well as beginning to repair any damage caused by malnutrition.
While a person can often access the above treatments from home, inpatient (residential) rehabilitation is often recommended, where the various treatment programmes can be administered on-site and the addict will be unable to come into contact with amphetamines and thus risk relapsing.
As noted above, amphetamines remain popular amongst recreational drug users and come in a variety of forms. MDMA (ecstasy) is the most frequently abused amphetamine in the UK and has spread well beyond its traditional core user group within the party/rave culture. “Speed” – a street name for amphetamine itself, normally in powder form – has declined somewhat in popularity since its heyday a few decades ago but retains a significant user base. Methamphetamine (“meth” or “crystal meth”), an extremely addictive and destructive form of the drug, has not yet achieved the popularity in the UK that it has in many other countries, but its use is growing, placing increased strain on social and health services. Because of its medical uses, amphetamine (and combination drugs containing it) is also available under a variety of brand names including Adderall, Mydayis, Evekeo and many others.
Although a comprehensive list of street names for amphetamines would be impossible to compile (as slang evolves so rapidly, and because each “brand” of ecstasy tablet has its own name), some common terms include:
Amphetamines have long been associated with weight-loss treatment (both medically approved and illicit); amphetamine itself is sometimes prescribed to treat obesity and eating disorders, while many people procure amphetamines illegally to help them lose weight (or keep it off). As they suppress a person’s appetite, amphetamines are frequently seen as a “pain-free” solution to weight-related issues as a user simply doesn’t want to eat as much (or at all) and thus a lack of willpower ceases to be such a concern. Moreover, amphetamine users often engage in much more (and more arduous) physical activity than the norm: amphetamine has also been used for many years as a performance-enhancing drug in sport and personal fitness; drugs such as ecstasy are sometimes known as “dance drugs” because of the desire a user feels to dance, often for prolonged periods; meanwhile in some cases amphetamines have a greatly enhancing impact upon the libido and users can engage in a great deal of high-energy sexual activity. This exercise may well lead to significant weight loss; however, it can also place tremendous strain upon the cardiovascular system which, combined with insufficient food consumption and malnutrition, can have extremely negative and lasting effects upon the body.