Amphetamines, the quintessential drug of the modern industrial age, arrived relatively late in the history of mind-altering substances—commercialized just in time for mass consumption during World War II. In fact, the introduction of what is now Japan’s most popular illegal drug began as a result of the state promoting its use during the war.
With the possible exception of opium during the Opium Wars, no drug has ever received a bigger stimulus from armed conflict. “World War II probably gave the greatest impetus to date to legal, medically-authorized as well as illicit black market abuse of these pills on a worldwide scale,” wrote Lester Grinspoon and Peter Hedblom in their classic 1975 study, The Speed Culture. Whether in the air or in the trenches, the war enabled the rapid proliferation of a synthetic stimulant that was particularly well-suited to sleepless work and intense concentration.
Amphetamines—often called “pep pills,” “go pills,” “uppers,” or “speed”—are a group of synthetic drugs that stimulate the central nervous system, reducing fatigue and appetite and increasing wakefulness and imparting a sense of well-being. Methamphetamine is a particularly potent ...