Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The 75-Cent Plague

July 6th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Reading Walter Kirn’s sharp review of Methland reminded us that speed scares are nothing new. In researching the history of Benzedrine for Now the Hell Will Start, we remember coming across this 1959 Time piece about Eisenhower-era addicts and their penchant for crime. With a few linguistic tweaks, it could easily have been written last week—right down to the hand-wringing over the moral harm caused to the Heartland:

“I was involved in a lot of burglaries,” the pretty blonde told Kansas City police, “and I couldn’t have done it without a shot. When you’re on that stuff, you just don’t care. I was even a prostitute for three months.” The “stuff,” explained Sharon Pollard, 21, and now in jail for smuggling a revolver to her jailed boy friend and partner in crime, comes from a 75¢ inhaler intended only for clearing stuffy noses. But if its active chemical ingredient, amphetamine, is dissolved and injected into a vein, it packs a wallop. Last week the abuse of amphetamine was growing so fast that it had the Kansas City police, Missouri legislators, federal officials, even the U.S. Congress seriously concerned.

Society’s troubles with amphetamine go back almost 20 years to a time when the most popular inhaler contained Benzedrine (Smith, Kline, & French Laboratories’ trade name for one form of amphetamine). Prison wardens complained that accordion-pleated paper fillers loaded with 250 mg. of amphetamine (15 times the average daily dose a doctor would prescribe for reducing or lethargic patients) were being smuggled to convicts, who chewed them and went on violent rampages. Then S.K.F. chemists found a better decongestant, propylhexedrine (not an amphetamine or a stimulant), to put in inhalers, and changed the name to Benze-drex. The problem died down until five years ago, when St. Louis’ Pfeiffer Co. began marketing a 200-mg. inhaler called Valo, once again containing amphetamine. It sold well, and the old problem of misuse soon recurred.

Among the hardcore Valo abusers? Novelist James Ellroy, who recounted his awful amphetamine years in My Dark Places.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Tony Comstock

    Lots of meth in the valley where I graduated high school, especially among those who worked in the mills — long boring hours where a moment’s inattention could get you dead. Lot’s of ruined houses too, and no small measure of lawlessness.

    Gunplay in the woods was more related to marijuana. You haven’t lived till you’ve taken automatic weapons fire!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Tony Comstock:In terms of workplace drug use, the images that stick with me are from Charlie LeDuff’s descriptions of working in an N.C. slaughterhouse. He talked about dozens of men smoking crack down by the river after their shifts were through.

    Anthologized in “Work and Other Sins.” Def. a fantastic read–check it out here:


  • Jackal

    I was a Valo abuser in the early to mid sixties. It was a brutal amphetamine that seemed to last forever. There was another inhaler that was just as wicked, it was named Wyamine.

    We would inject it using a ‘set of works’ that was an eye dropper with thread wrapped around the tapered end until a 26ga 3/8″ needle would seal firmly on the eyedropper.