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The need for speed: the fast and furious marketing of amphetamines

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 08 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a741
  1. Allen Shaughnessy, director of curriculum development, Tufts University family medicine residency at Cambridge Health Alliance, Massachusetts
  1. Allen.Shaughnessy{at}

    Amphetamines were for years a “drug looking for a disease.” Allen Shaughnessy considers a chronicle of their many uses in that time

    Ask most doctors about methamphetamine and they will describe its ability to ruin many lives, causing a societal blight. Ask most doctors about methylphenidate and they will describe its valuable role in treating children and adults who can’t focus.

    On Speed tracks “the many lives” of the amphetamines, from the discovery of amfetamine in 1929 to current use today as black market drugs of misuse and white market treatments for obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Amfetamine started as a potent drug without a role—until one was created. The author characterises it as a “drug looking for a disease.” On Speed also traces the development of the market for amphetamines and the evolution of drug companies into the potent marketing machines they have become.

    The first recorded use of amfetamine was by its developer, the biochemist Gordon Alles, who had a colleague inject him with 50 mg, five times more than what would become the usual dose. Concerned with its haemodynamic effect, Alles scrupulously recorded blood pressure readings for eight hours. In the margins he noted a “feeling of wellbeing.” In an addendum he noted, “Rather sleepless …

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