General Articles


Upstanding citizens sniff Benzedrine inhalers to beat a cold. Others pry ’em open for a jolt that rivals cocaine

PIERRE BERTON June 15 1948
General Articles


Upstanding citizens sniff Benzedrine inhalers to beat a cold. Others pry ’em open for a jolt that rivals cocaine

PIERRE BERTON June 15 1948


Upstanding citizens sniff Benzedrine inhalers to beat a cold. Others pry ’em open for a jolt that rivals cocaine


HE WAS about 60 years old and he shuffled down Vancouver’s Powell Street with an aimless gait, lurching heavily against the grimy water front buildings, his hands thrust deeply into the folds of his shapeless, colorless clothing. He came to a doorway marked “Rooms” and turned into it, climbed the dark stairway to the second landing and entered one of the doorways halfway down the hall.

“Gimme one of those benzies,” he said to a man seated on the bed.

The man on the bed was paralyzed from the hips down. He’d been that way ever since the U. S. police had surprised him in the act of holding up a bank and shot him in the abdomen. He took 75 cents from his newest customer, then with an eyedropper he sucked up some solution which he’d been cooking over a flame in a spoon and handed it to the new man.

The man who had just come in looked briefly at the other customers who were lying about on the floor, then rolled up his pant leg to reveal a wasted thigh, pockmarked by sores and abscesses. He took a large safety pin out of his pocket and jabbed it into the fleshy part of his thigh, which was as tough as leather from previous jabbings. He worked the pin around until he had a hole about an inch deep, then took the eyedropper and squeezed the solution into the hole. He waited a few moments for the reaction.

It took about 30 seconds. When the man had come in he had been a sorry figure—agitated, trembling, watery-eyed, thick-mouthed. Now, after the initial jolt of the drug, he looked almost normal. For 12 hours, perhaps longer, he would feel almost normal again.

This man had just had a shot of one of the newest and most misused stimulants — Benzedrine, which in the past 15 years has swept the continent like wildfire, crossing the lives of people in every stratum of life: college students, soldiers, jazz leaders, professional men, rubby-dubs. He bought

his shot in one of Vancouver’s infamous “bomb shelters,” the newest recruit to that family of shadow - world establishments which already includes the clip joint, the hook shop and the blind


Add Shoe Polish to Taste

THE MAN who sold him his injection of energy, which the underworld calls a “benzy” or a “bomber” or a “speedball,” got it from one of the innocuous little Benzedrine inhalers which many people sniff when they have a cold. He bought the inhaler for 60 cents, on a doctor’s prescription. He took the little white plastic tube apart, removing the cotton batting, cutting the strip of Benzedrine in the centre in eight pieces, dissolving each in a little water and cooking them over an oil wick in a bent spoon, just as an opium addict does. At 75 cents a shot he realized in this way a profit of $5.40 on a 60-cent inhaler.

The room from which he operated was a typical “bomb shelter.” There was a sink with dirty cups and saucers in one corner, a grill with some opened cans nearby. There were a few detective magazines and comic books lying around and some empty after-shave lotion bottles and brown shoe-polish tins. (One man explained to police that the initial injection of Benzedrine just about blew his head off, but if follówed by a drink of the lotion, mixed with shoe polish to make it palatable, produced a pleasurable feeling of well-being.)

The official equipment of the bomb shelter was kept together in a kit: Benzedrine inhalers, eyedroppers and hypodermic needles (the latter used

by newer customers whose veins were still visible and had not yet been damaged by frequent injections), an oilstone for sharpening the needles, tourniquets to make the veins stand out before injection, scissors, some small rubber tubing cut into sections to make washers for the improvised syringes, cotton batting and several spoons, with the handles bent in such a way that they would stand up while being heated. These are the tools of the trade at any well-run bomb shelter.

The various Vancouver bomb shelters cater to an estimated 200 steady customers and a good many more underworld users are scattered between the West Coast and Toronto. (There are few in Quebec and the Maritimes.)

Benzedrine, of course, was never meant to be used like this. It is a trade name owned by the Smith, Kline & French Laboratories of Philadelphia. The product is marketed in two forms—as volatile Benzedrine in the inhalers and as Benzedrine sulphate in tablet or powder form. The two substances were both discovered 20 years ago by two chemists working independently. The inhalers were first put on the market in 1933 and the powdered form in 1935. The company won’t say how much Benzedrine it sells, but it is known that four million of the inhalers were sold in the U. S. last year and close to 40,000 in Canada where their sale is more restricted.

Benzedrine has several legitimate medical uses. It has proved invaluable in the treatment of narcolepsy, a rare disease which causes people to fall asleep during normally wakeful hours. Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts

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have administered it to patients who have felt mildly depressed. (It’s not much use in cases of deep depression.) It is a valuable nerve stimulant and is used as such. It has been used in the treatment of alcoholics and to combat an overdose of sleeping pills.

The drug is also used as an appetite duller by people on diets. Dexedrine, a form of Benzedrine, was used in tests made in 1943 by the Philadelphia Endocrine Research Institute. Three hundred men, women and children were put on low-calory diets. When the pangs of hunger became too great they were given five milligrams of the drug before eating. It exhilarated them but took away their appetite. All lost an average of two pounds a day. However, Benzedrine should only be used this way on medical advice.

In inhaler form, Benzedrine is used in the treatment of colds. Its action here is to shrink the mucous membranes of the nose. In the action, as well as in its stimulating powers, Benzedrine behaves like its two chemical cousins, ephedrine and adrenalin. It was, in fact, in a search for a drug similar to these two chemicals that Benzedrine was discovered. Ephedrine, familiar to hay-fever sufferers, was first obtained in 1887 from the Chinese herb mahuang. Benzedrine is a synthetic variation. Adrenalin comes from the suprarenal glands of ail animals. It is also a powerful stimulant and is the substance that the body secretes to counteract fright, anger or excitement. Benzedrine stimulates the nerves in much the same way as adrenalin does as the result of fright, by removing the feeling of fatigue and keying up the system to renewed efforts. A small dose can inciease the pulse (normal: 60-70) to 150 and keep it there for two days. A large overdose can kill—-by overworking the heart—but deaths are rare.

But Benzedrine is no substitute for sleep. It merely allows you to borrow on your sleeping time and what you borrow you must return. You can’t buy pep in bottles. Benzedrine action upon the tired muscles or the fatigued mind is illusory. It isn’t a food. It only makes you feel less tired. A weary

body, stirred to greater effort by Benzedrine, will be twice as weary when the effect wears off.

Benzedrine is known chemically as amphetamine, but the world knows it by its trade name which has become almost a part of the language. Comedians continually refer to it; one radio gagster joking about it to soldiers in the South Pacific got a terrific reaction from a Benzedrine joke which puzzled him until he found the soldiers were using it. Christopher Morley in “Kitty Foyle” has a ref erence to career women who use it and there’s a popular song “Who Put The Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”

It is an intriguing drug. During the Spanish Civil War a newspaper correspondent startled his colleagues by taking repeated doses of it and remaining awake for seven days and nights while he filed copy. Then he collapsed. Because tired race horses have been known to cross the finish line, leading by a nose, after an injection of Benzedrine, the saliva test has been changed to include tests for the drug. It is a favorite among jazz musicians. During the Nazi-dominated Vichy regime, the aging Marshal Petain was able to carry out his official duties with daily shots of Benzedrine which kept him alert for a few hours before he relapsed into senility.

Blitz Pills

Benzedrine had a wide use during the war. It was the main ingredient of the “pep pills” which Hitler fed to his Blitz Army during the Lowlands invasion of 1940. During the Battle of Britain, flyers making five missions a day used Benzedrine, but the RAF later abandoned its use when it found that pilots were so keyed up that they were unable to relax between missions. It formed part of the United States Army jungle first-aid kit for soldiers in the Pacific area. Fighting men took or.e tablet for fatigue, two for exhaustion—were warned not to take more. But the Canadian Army, after making exhaustive tests at its experimental station in Suffield, Alta., decided against its use. The experts gave Benzedrine sulphate to one group of scldiers, “fake” pills to another group, and found that the Benzedrine had no appreciable effect on rifle shooting, military efficiency or fatigue.

Despite this evidence, Benzedrine does apparently have some effect upon alertness and efficiency. Scientists have discovered that it increases the speed and accuracy with which a human guinea pig can cross out the sixes in a lengthy column eight figures wide. It was used during the war to accentuate and prolong sensory perceptions in men operating antisubmarine detection devices. The findings at Suffield may be due to the fact that all of the men tested thought they had some kind of pep pill and their minds acted accordingly.

Since it was first marketed, Benzedrine has been a favorite with college students cramming for examinations. It has sometimes had unfortunate results: One student entered an exam under the influence of the drug, wrote a line in longhand on his exam sheet, then repeated the same line all the way down the page. As early as 1936, psychology students at the University of Minnesota began experimenting with Benzedrine as part of their studies. Some of the students stole the drug for use at exam time. The dosage sent them to hospital for several weeks. In 1939 a student at Purdue University collapsed and died during an exam. At the inquest, the coroner found that Benzedrine was a major factor in his death.

During the wartime “zootsuit” riots in California, which involved groups of teen-age civilians and naval men, police officers found that 30 of the zoot suiters had Benzedrine inhalers. Renzedrine has long been known on Broadway as an ingredient in a strange form of amusement known as “a bolt and a jolt.” The other ingredient is a barbiturate sleeping pill You take the pill: it lays you out; you take the Benzedrine: it snaps you back.

In 1941 the use of Benzedrine sulphate had become so widespread in Canada, and its misuse so great, that the Food and Drug Aet vas widened to include it as one of the drugs which cannot be bought without a prescription. Some people, deprived of liquor during wartime, switched to the Benzedrine inhaler. The strip in the inhaler was dissolved in water and injected into the body, or dissolved in alcohol and drunk. In 1944, the inhaler was also put on the prescription list.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that it isn’t too hard to buy these inhalers with or without a prescription. A Maclean’s editor walked into a Toronto drugstone while this article was being written and purchased one without either prescription or difficulty. Last year in Vancouver, nine doctors investigated over a three-week period were found to have written 127 prescriptions for inhalers—all to residents of the skid-road district, many of them known drug addicts and wine birds. Vancouver and Edmonton are said to be the chief centres of this underworld traffic.

Better-class Business

Prescriptions don’t all go to semicriminals. The Dominion Department of Health notes a heavy percentage of sales in a well-to-do district in Windsor and reports that the inhalers seem “easy to obtain.” One notorious drug habituate bought $10 worth of Benzedrine at one Vancouver drugstore without any prescription. Not long ago, gold miners on night shift in Timmins, Ont., were using Benzedrine for work underground until the druggists combined and refused to sell it.

Narcotic addicts using Benzedrine say that its effect is very similar to cocaine. It takes away their aches and pains, causes loss of appetite and restlessness. Nonaddicts find it more

difficult to describe the effect. It is soothing and comforting, they say, and helps combat liquor hang-over. The underworld element prefers to inject it straight into the “main line” (underworld slang for vein) but the vein will collapse in a month, making intramuscular injections necessary. These cause painful sores and abscesses which cover the arms and thighs of most bomb-shelter customers. One Montreal doctor injects Benzedrine under the skin of his abdomen.

The medical profession still disagrees over whether or not Benzedrine can produce true addiction. True addiction, such as that produced by morphine, is characterized by a craving for the drug, a tolerance built up by habitual use, and painful physical symptoms when the drug is withdrawn. In the short period in which Benzedrine has been under study there has been little evidence of withdrawal pains. Nonetheless, the same type of person who becomes an alcoholic or a drug addict can form a dependence for Benzedrine and build up a strong tolerance for it.

A typical Benzedrine victim was a London fire fighter who took it to keep up his courage during the 1940 blitz. A confirmed nail biter, stammerer and nonmixer, he soon began taking Benzedrine in large quantities until he couldn’t do without it. He followed his Benzedrine doses with a strong cup of tea and told doctors that to him a cup of tea and Benzedrine was better than a hearty meal. But he was quickly cured of the habit in hospital.

Drugs All the Day

The type of person who takes Benzedrine in habitual doses often for^23 £ mania for drugs of all kinds. There ÍS a case on the records of the Department of Health of a Vancouver man whose monthly drug bill Was $143—a large portion of it going for Benzed-'.ne, A serious automobile accident in early life had caused an addiction to morphine, but he had been cured of this. On his release from hospital he experimented with Benzedrine and other drugs. Soon his daily routine consisted of nothing but the taking of these drugs from morning to night. He literally took one injection after another. When not taking injections he busied himself sterilizing equipment. In between injections he gulped tablets. He never slept in bed. His only repose consisted of short, restless naps in an easy chair. His only trips outside were to and from drugstore; —he used six and required prescriptions from none of them. His life became one long injection and for the rest of the family was intolerable. He beat and abused his wife and once knocked her cold, though he’d always been kind to her in predrug days.

In cases of extreme Benzedrine habituation, strong hallucinations accompany the intoxication which for sheer vividness and reality outdo the D.T.’s and even the famous cocaine hallucinations. (Cocaine addicts have been known to see the head of a uniformed policeman squeezing through the keyhole of their door.)

There is the typical case of a 52year-old French housewife who joined the resistance movement in 1940. For two year?, she subjected herself to feverish activity in the movement and in 1942 began to take small doses of Benzedrine on the advice of a physician. She gradually increased her dosage until she was swallowing the incredible amount of 700 milligrams a day. (The average daily dose is five to 20 milligrams. The inhaler contains 325 milligrams and is supposed to last the user for three months.)

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She tried to break her habit but found to her horror that she now could not do without Benzedrine. Her condition soon became apparent to the casual observer. Her breathing was labored, her heart pounded like a trip hammer, her face alternately went dead-white and beet-red. She went without food for days, then suddenly was smitten with hunger pangs. Her mouth went dry, her hands trembled and her voice quivered.

In 1943, she began to feel pricking sensations on her arms and face, which by now felt quite cold. She thought that these were caused by insect bites and soon she began to feel small mites walking on her skin, in her clothes and around her pores. At first she believed that the bugs were crawling under her skin, but after three months she began to see the insects. Now she began to stare at them through a magnifying glass and soon stopped eating because she thought they were dropping into her food. And yet, on some mornings when she didn’t take the Benzedrine, when she got up, she doubted her delusions.

An even more extreme case of a Benzedrine slave who “saw things” was uncovered in the United States in 1945. He was a 45-year-old lawyer whom we’ll call Jones.

Signals from the Stars

In 1929 Jones lost all his money, quit his legal business and became a WPA worker. By 1939 he was visiting doctors telling them that he had an “all-gone” feeling. One doctor prescribed 10 milligrams of Benzedrine four times daily. The drug produced a feeling of tremendous stimulation and elation in Jones who began to take it in larger and larger doses without the knowledge of his doctor. He was working now in a war plant, practicing law in the evenings, eating and sleeping well. But he was dominated by Benzedrine though he didn’t know it.

The delusion didn’t appear until the final four months of Jones’ five-year Benzedrine binge. But when it came, it was a whopper. The first signs were sleeplessness and restlessness. Jones began to complain that searchlights were being flashed into his room, keeping him awake during the night. Then he began to believe his room was being watched. He told his wife, during automobile drives,that.a carwasfollowing them. Then he thought six cars were following them. He became so fearful that he quit his job. In the third month of his hallucination he liegan to hear the voice of his son who was with the American Army in Europe at the time.

Pretty soon Jones began to think that the stars were signal lights from his son, whom he now believed to be flying about in an invisible helicopter over the front yard. He spent a good time in the front yard staring at the sky and talking to his son and on one occasion prepared a meal for his son and commanding officer. By now he was taking 250 milligrams of Renzedrine daily and had lost 20 pounds in five months. He rationalized his hallucinations by announcing that he was being tested by the Government for an important secret-service position.

When he was committed to hospital, against his wishes, he was suspicious and belligerent. He protested his “illegal commitment” and refused food for the first six days. On the seventh day he began to eat. He could still see the helicopter in the sky when he looked out of the hospital window and continued to be argumentative. But gradually he grew more co-operative and the hallucination faded. After

30 days in the hospital he was discharged as recovered.

This man was taking enough Benzedrine to kill an ordinary human being. There is one case on record of a man who recorded his hourly impressions as he dosed himself to death with Benzedrine. It took 120 milligrams to kill him—a tittle more than a third of that contained in a Benzedrine inhaler.

Death Diary

He was an American soldier and a former alcoholic who had an unhappy family life and was subject to fits of terrible depression. The army doctor, as part, of the treatment, prescribed five milligrams of Benzedrine each morning for him. But the Benzedrine had little effect so the patient decided to take as much as he could. Here is part of the letter he wrote while he dosed himself. (He was an intelligent man and the bad grammar and spelling are a result of his condition):

“It’s been about 20 minutes since I took the first four (tablets), don’t feel nothing yet but just got through taking eight more maybe I’ll get that elated feeling one more time at least, if a dozen don’t do it i’ll keep taking them four at a time till they do. If I live through this, I’ll at least know how it feels to come from the depths to the hieghts, its made me belch twice that all, well of all the places to feel a sensation my right foot feels like its getting numb, my heart is pounding and I feel a pulse in my head that seems to start from behind and go around counter clock-wise and stop about even with my left ear. I sure as hell don’t feel any elation though . . . I’ve no new feeling so I’m going to take four more. My temples are pounding now and it feels like my legs were away off . . .”

Shortly after, he called a friend and told him he was sick. He was taken to hospital. Six hours later he was dead.

Should the sale of Benzedrine be further restricted? The medical profession is at odds on the subject. Most medical men say no. But the British Medical Journal sounds a word of warning when it points out that “recognition of addiction has always lagged considerably behind the introduction of the drug.” Cocaine was used long before its danger was recognizedHeroin, now feared as the deadliest, most degrading, most powerful of all narcotics (four times stronger thar. morphine) was once thought of as a cure for morphine addiction. Benzedrine is a young drug. Right now it’s a lesser problem than alcohol. But the sales are increasing, ir