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The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 38. How speed was popularized

The damage done by heroin, as demonstrated in Part I, is largely traceable to antinarcotics laws and policies and to the heroin black market that has grown up under the shelter of those laws and policies. The damage done by LSD, as we shall also see, is in large part a function of laws and attitudes. This is certainly  not true of the speed phenomenon. Unlike the heroin and the LSD cases, it is large intravenous doses of the drug itself that have devastating effects in the case of speed. But laws and policies were certainly responsible in considerable part for  popularizing speed.

One instance of this, the antispeed campaign launched by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1962 and 1963, has already been cited. It was the publicity accompanying this campaign that alerted a whole generation of young people to the perils (and pleasures) of speed. As in other cases described earlier and to be described in subsequent chapters, the peril became the lure.

A somewhat different process helped to popularize speed following San Francisco's 1967 "Summer of Love." That summer many thousands of adolescents took off for the Haight-Ashbury district, the center of the "hippie movement," where marijuana and LSD were freely available. This migration, and others like it, will be discussed at length in Part IX. There was relatively little speed, and little violence, that first summer. * The sheer size of the immigration, however, overwhelmed the LSD–– using "flower people" who had established the Haight-Ashbury subculture. In increasing numbers, they moved into the hills. Their places were taken by young people looking, not for love and mind-expansion, but for drug "kicks." Marijuana and LSD faded into the background; speed took over. New times, new customs, new participants, new needs, new wants–– and a new drug to meet those needs and wants.

* By September 1967, however, one-third of 413 residents of the Haight-Ashbury area had injected amphetamines intravenously at least once. 1

The conversion to speed was facilitated, moreover, by the antimarijuana and anti-LSD campaigns being waged at the time. The "LSD chromosome scare," to be discussed in Part VII, was a central feature of this campaign. Many young people heeded the warnings with which the newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV programs were flooded, and gave up LSD. In its place they turned to speed. The change was for the worse.

Users of marijuana and LSD recognized and publicized the overwhelming hazards of speed in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the tide. Thus the poet Allen Ginsberg, the author of "Howl," remarked in an interview in the Los Angeles  Free Press, an underground newspaper: "Let's issue a general declaration to all the underground community,  contra speedamos ex cathedra. Speed is antisocial, paranoid making, it's a drag, bad for your body, bad for your mind, generally speaking, in the long run uncreative and it's a plague in the whole dope: industry. All the nice gentle dope fiends are getting screwed up by the real horror monster Frankenstein speed freaks who are going around stealing and bad mouthing everybody." 2 This quote from Ginsberg was widely publicized throughout the underground press. Timothy Leary, the Beatles, and the Mothers of Invention also warned against speed. 3 The overground press, however, continued to rail against LSD–– and marijuana.

Police and narcotics officials, too, must bear some of the responsibility. Their main concern at the time was certainly marijuana and LSD, the traditional "hippie" drugs. While they searched for caches of those drugs, speed took over. A seventeen-year-old girl whose friends had used speed remarked: "Some police officers we interviewed said pot was deadly and addictive! When kids try it and see it's all a lie they figure the stuff about speed is false, too." 4

Two psychiatrists, Drs. James R. Allen and Louis Jolyon West, and a medical student, Joshua Kaufman, after a study of adolescents who ran away to the Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967, made the same point in more general terms: "The horrible reactions to marijuana predicted by various authorities were virtually never seen. The runaways generally took this to mean that all the widely advertised dangers of drugs were establishment lies. This further alienated them from the social structure and made them more willing to experiment with all sorts of chemicals." 5

Even the warning, "Speed kills," may have played its subtle role in popularizing speed. The 1970  Interim Report of Canada's Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (popularly known as the Le Dain Commission) comments on this possibility: 

Some "speed" users who inject almost suicidal doses of methamphetamine into their veins without any regard for their safety and health, may actually be trying to test the truth of the youth slogan "Speed Kills". The role of the doomed person who is at once a martyr sacrificing himself, a hero braving the confrontation with certain destruction and a gambler playing dice with death, is a role which seems to have a strong seductive pull for some young people who are morbidly hungry for compassion, admiration and excitement. For these individuals the slogan "Speed Kills", may, paradoxically, carry more attractive than deterrent power–– and thus may not serve the purpose for which it is being promoted. 6

 Sound public policy, the speed phenomenon suggests, would dictate telling young people the truth. They should be informed, for example, that speed, though it very rarely kills, is far more damaging than marijuana. But most drug propaganda campaigns try to keep this a secret for it may also reveal to young people that marijuana is far less damaging than speed.

We shall return to this theme–– the many ways in which laws, policies, and propaganda campaigns serve to encourage a shift from less dangerous to more dangerous drugs–– in subsequent chapters of this Report.

Chapter 38

1. Roger C. Smith, "U. S. Marijuana Legislation and the Creation of a Social Problem,"  Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, vol. 11, no. 1 (1968): 52.

2. Allen Ginsberg, interview with Art Kunkin, in Los Angeles Free Press, December 1965, reprinted in  Speed Hurts, ed. Art Wiener, Amphetamine Research Project, sponsored by National Institute of Mental Health, March 31, 1969, p. 2.

3. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, p. 50.

4. Speed Hurts, p. 4.

5. James R. Allen, Louis Jolyon West, and Joshua Kaufman, in  American Journal of Psychiatry, 126 (November 1969): 165.

6. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, p. 168.

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