The many lives of amphetamine

When I first started my PhD, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to study. As a clinical pharmacist in an emergency department of a university teaching hospital, part of my job was asking patients what medications they were taking, so that we could get the correct information in the chart, firstly, and also so that we could determine whether medications were related to the emergency visit. Was the patient experiencing a side effect? Was a dosage too low or to high? Did we need to eliminate or add a medication to the patient’s regimen?

I therefore “came into the world” within this clinical perspective on drug use. My objective, as a pharmacist, was to make sure the patient was taking exactly the right medications for their health condition, with tolerable side effects, if any. However, this also gave me the opportunity to engage with people about their medication use, and I became interested in why people use pharmaceuticals, how they use them, and the specific relationship one can develop with medications-as-objects. So I set out to explore the everyday experience of taking pharmaceuticals, which appeared to be far more complex than could be imagined in the clinical setting. During this time, I was also diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition; I was myself experiencing taking medications everyday.

My literature search led me to prescription psychostimulants, such as amphetamine or methylphenidate. Their use – outside of the medical realm – to increase performance in the academic or work setting has been widely reported. One of the first books I read to learn more about this phenomenon was Nicolas Rasmussen’s “On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine” (NYU Press, 2009).

This was an eye opening read; it shed light on the contingency of drug use – how the “same” substance, chemically speaking, can take on a diverse set of meanings in different contexts, transforming subjectivities as well as the collective imagination. Rasmussen shows there can be periods of great collective enthusiasm for a pharmaceutical, which then fizzle out, only to return years later… The book also underscores that presenting amphetamine users as either ” (compliant) patients” or “misusers / abusers”  – or even addicts – as is often the case in the clinic, is morally charged and difficult to defend. More on this here. I also particularly enjoyed reading about amphetamine’s (i.e. Benzedrine) influence within the jazz culture circa 1940, namely the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie (pp. 91-93).

Evidently, Rasmussen’s work led me to other authors and papers – more on that in future posts.


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