World History of Drugs (Part III)

“Cheaper Than Oxy” / Raj Bunnag / Relief linocut (

The following is part three in a series by author, George Lewis. 

The United States is a reluctant world power. All eyes are on Europe watching and waiting as Hitler rises to power. It is 1933 and America is still feeling the sting of its participation in World War I which it had just ended fifteen short years before (World War I ended in 1918). The citizens of America were still hurting from the financial pain of the Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929, America was in no mood to enter what it saw as a war that had nothing to do with them. Yet in 1941 war chose America. The country had no choice but to answer the challenge of “December 7th, 1941, ‘the day that will live in infamy.’” The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. America had entered the war.

Lazӑr Edeleanu, a Romanian chemist looking to produce synthetic rubber, discovered how to synthesize amphetamine sulfide in the 1880s from the Chinese plant ma-huang, also known as ephedra. Edeleanu didn’t think that this discovery was of any value, so he continued his work to synthesize rubber and he succeeded.

Japan was using amphetamines to combat fatigue in the 1919s. By the 1940s Germany understood what amphetamines could do to enhance the performance of the German army.

The author Norman Ohler states in his book, Blitzed that the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) was issued methamphetamine a form of crystal meth. The drug was produced in pill form by the pharmaceutical company Temmler. This drug was introduced in 1938 under the pharmaceutical name Pervitin.

Pervitin increased alertness, curbed the appetite and the user needed little sleep. This was the perfect drug for a fast-moving army and a huge advantage to the German military, as it allowed Hitler’s warfare strategy, called “blitzkrieg” or lightening war, to become the conquering army of Europe. This was an aggressive form of warfare, a swift, focused blow at an enemy using mobile, maneuverable forces, including armored tanks and air support. Pervitin allowed the infantry to keep up with this new mobilized warfare and occupy the territory taken by its tanks and air power. Once again, a drug was affecting world history.

What about the allies?

British forces, after shooting down German pilots, found amphetamine pills. The Allies figured that if these pills worked to increase the performance of German soldiers, then these pills would work for Allied soldiers. American pilots and servicemen were given Benzedrine. This drug gave the Allies a similar performance enhancement that the Germans were given.

It makes sense that in a war with so many integral players that an advantage on one side would as quickly as possible be either copied or negated. Benzedrine enhanced the ability to stay alert on long missions and calm the nerves of soldiers performing daring and dangerous jobs. These missions were made more bearable by the use of amphetamines. After the Attack on Pearl Harbor some bad decisions on how to win the war, were instituted, one of which was the use of amphetamines. Looking back on history, that decision was incredibly unwise. Once again, drugs played a part in world history (Source).

SEE ALSO  World History of Drugs (Part V)

Drug use during the Vietnam War

51 percent of the armed forces had smoked marijuana, 31 percent had used psychedelics, such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms, and an additional 28 percent had taken hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War used drugs more heavily than any previous generation of enlisted U.S. troops. Troops were using heroin, amphetamines, and marijuana. President Nixon was concerned that the war was in jeopardy because of the widespread use of drugs. Substance abuse in the Vietnam War wasn’t just limited to marijuana and heroin that G.Is could buy on the black market. Military commanders also heavily prescribed pills to help improve soldiers’ performance.

The Department of Defense published a 1971 report that stated, “51 percent of the armed forces had smoked marijuana, 31 percent had used psychedelics, such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms, and an additional 28 percent had taken hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. But drug usage wasn’t just limited by what G.Is could illicitly buy on the black market. Their military command also heavily prescribed pills to the troops under the auspices of improving performance” (Source: Drug Use in Vietnam Soared Updated: Aug 29, 2018 Original: April 18, 2018 by Adam Janos).

It is possible that some of the atrocities committed by American troops against Vietnamese civilians may have been done while withdrawing from amphetamine (Source: From the book Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, Lukasz Kamienski).

Mk-ultra and the cold war

In the 1950s and 1960s the United States was at the height of the “cold war” with Russia. America was looking for a drug that would allow it to further its attempts to perfect “mind control” otherwise called “brainwashing.”

The CIA was conducting hundreds of secret experiments, often on unsuspecting American citizens. The CIA was engaged in a top-secret project code named MK-Ultra. The CIA was exploring the use of LSD and other drugs to further its attempt at mind control, getting information from those that they used these drugs on and even engaging in mental torture. Project MK-Ultra lasted from 1953 until 1973, although the public didn’t learn of MK-Ultra until 1975, when congress began to investigate the illegal activities of the CIA in the United States and around the world. The CIA used psychedelic drugs, paralytics and electroshock therapy to experiment on more than 150 human beings. Some knew that they were participating in the experiments, but many did not know. Again, drugs played a part in the world history of war, shooting wars and the cold war of the mind (Source).

SEE ALSO  World History of Drugs (Part VI)

From the 1960s to the mid-1970s an anti-establishment culture was developing throughout most of the Western world. The Civil Rights Movement was growing, and war in Vietnam was creating anti-war sentiment throughout the country. Add to that the social tensions regarding human sexuality, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, experimentation with psychoactive drugs, and differing interpretations of the ‘American Dream.’ A counterculture was developing, and drugs were becoming a part of this new anti-government, and anti-authoritarian social culture which was taking hold. All kinds of drugs were beginning to appear on the counterculture scene. Uppers, downers, Reds Devils, Christmas Trees, Black Beauties, Quaaludes, Blotters, Cocaine, and the old standbys of Weed and Heroin were a part of this culture.

I was a young man in my 20s as this era of American history was unfolding. This new culture of political upheaval and civil activism also gave rise to a dynamic subculture that embraced experimentation with drugs – and which became the modern incarnations of Bohemianism – that then transformed into the hippie culture and opened the door to other alternative lifestyles.

The counterculture era really took off with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963; the rumbling of anti-war sentiment was becoming popular in this new and growing culture which ultimately caused the termination of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia; and concluded with the end of the draft in 1973, along with Watergate which caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974.

American society was in upheaval at every level of society, distrust of government and the power structure was the norm. The country was moving toward the 80s and drugs would play a part in American history in a way that would almost bring down an American administration and create what would become a drug epidemic and begin to change drug laws that would put the terminology “The land of the free” in doubt. Instead, America would become the country that incarcerated its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation on the planet.

George Lewis is founder and CEO of Motivational Consulting, Inc. and has more than 18 years of experience in the human services industry. His website is

Last Updated on January 12, 2021

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