If you thought Ritalin was invented in the early 00s — when every hyperactive American kid popped a few mills with his Cap’n Crunch and zipped off to 4th grade homeroom — you wouldn’t be alone. But methylphenidate has been around as a treatment for hyperactivity since at least the 60s. Then, as now, doctors were quick to give kids this legal meth when deeper emotional issues were desperately seeking diagnosis.
In fact, fans of 1973’s The Exorcist know that, before Fathers Merrin and Karras saved young Regan’s soul, she was given a prescription for Ritalin. “Nobody knows the cause of hyperkinetic behavior in a child,” the doctor told Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil. “The Ritalin seems to work to relieve the condition.” Some parents of hyperactive kids still imagine their children are possessed by demons.
Lawrence Diller, author of Running on Ritalin, told Frontline, “Prozac was introduced in 1988. The explosion in Ritalin occurred in 1991. And I believe that Prozac paved the way, in terms of acceptability, for the use of Ritalin in children.”
Here we are, 25 years later, and the sledgehammer of Ritalin’s heavy-handed speedy chemistry has given way to a new generation of more refined pharmaceutical meth. And it’s no longer a drug for hyperactive kids. Writing in The Guardian, journalist (and Van Winkle’s contributor) Alexander Zaitchik reports that the market for pharmaceutical stimulants in the U.S. is now majority adult.
Thanks to the eagerness of many doctors to prescribe so-called ADHD drugs, every high school in the country is sloshing with enough amphetamine to keep five Panzer divisions awake during an extended Africa campaign. But now, for the first time, you are more likely to find drugs like Vyvanse and Adderall in a corporate office park than a classroom.
There is something unsettling about this continuing growth in prescription stimulants. Even though the pills are as strong as street meth – which in any case metabolizes quickly into dextroamphetamine, the main active ingredient in most ADHD drugs – nobody seems to call this class of drugs by its name: “speed.”
At least part of this growth comes down to nomenclature. No respectable suburbanite would dare touch bathtub crank, but popping an addy before heading out to Bennigan’s for a few brews with the boys? Where’s the harm? It’s a prescription. Zaitchik recounts his own conversation with a drug dealer:
During our recent industry-guided speed renaissance, “speed” has been turned into “meds”, reflecting the idea that amphetamine for most people remains some kind of safe treatment or routine performance-booster, rather than a highly addictive drug with some nasty talons in its tail. The full extent of this cultural forgetting hit me several years ago, when I asked an otherwise sophisticated street dealer what kind of speed he was holding. He stared at me in utter incomprehension. When I clarified my request with brand names, he said: “Oh, you mean meds.”
The rise of “the adult ADHD” market can largely be credited to drugmaker Shire, according to Zaitchik. From heavily funded conferences and studies to blatant direct-marketing campaigns featuring celebrity spokesdouches, Shire is pushing aggressively for wider acceptance. Zaitchik writes, “In January, Shire won FDA approval to prescribe its leading patented stimulant, Vyvanse, as a treatment for 'binge eating,' suggesting a return to the post-Cold War decades when the ‘Dexedrine Diet’ turned millions of women in the US and Europe into amphetamine addicts.”
It’s a particularly vicious cycle, as Zaitchik notes.
Many people signing up for Vyvanse and other new-gen daily regimen speeds are happy to buy into this illusion of distance between past and present, between street dealer and doctor’s pad. Poor people do dirty drugs like “meth” and “speed” and ruin their lives. Middle class strivers do “meds” and succeed while slimming down. But the truth is all speed is addictive. And all speed, even elegantly designed concoctions like Vyvanse, leaves users crashed out and riddled with anxiety and depression that deepens with time. (As those crashes get worse, it’s worth noting, they increase the allure of prescription opiates and benzodiazepines — two other booming drug markets that pharma has done much to cultivate.)
Who’s coming out on top? The drug-makers, of course. Like an arms dealer selling to both sides of a civil war, Big Pharma is happy to peddle both the disease and cure.
Grown men and women are welcome to use whatever drugs they want, provided they’re not jeopardizing the lives of others. (Of course, what exactly constitutes “jeopardizing” is up for debate. I happen to be exceptionally liberal in these matters; just stay off the road.) Whether you want to get more shit done at work, or need a few pills to survive a family reunion — have at it.
But if you’re taking comfort in Adderall’s legal status, denying its chemical relations to bathtub crank favored by toothless speed freaks, you’re kidding yourself.
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