The History of Stimulant Drug Use in War

War might seem the most unlikely and untimely environment to find ongoing drug use. But the reality is drugs have played a role on the battlefield for a long time. While we might think about pain-relieving drugs such as morphine to treat battlefield trauma, drug use has hardly been restricted to pain management by soldiers. In fact, drugs have been used to help give a cutting edge to combat and energy. These include the class of drugs known as stimulants. Here’s how stimulant drugs have historically been used in war.

Stimulants 101

We know of stimulants mainly from illicit street drugs like cocaine, crack, amphetamine, and chemically similar methamphetamine. Stimulant drugs speed up the body’s central nervous system, unlike opioids or alcohol, which slow it down. Stimulants can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or even injected, and each method of use has a different intensity of the drug’s effect on the body. In war and combat, stimulants are ideal because they increase mental focus and physical capability, reduce appetite, and extend wakefulness.

Amphetamine drugs have the longest continued history of use in war during the 20th century, with their pharmacological effects discovered in the late 1920s. This made these synthetic drugs available for commercial use just before World War II officially broke out. Benzedrine was the trade name for amphetamine, and it was available without a prescription as a decongestant in the form of inhalers or tablets. While today’s athletes must undergo rigorous drug tests and avoid performance-enhancing drugs, this was not always the case. In fact, Benzedrine use even played a role as a performance enhancer during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

War While on Drugs

The 1970s saw the popularization of what we know today as the war on drugs. President Nixon proclaimed that drug abuse was public enemy number one, and many people note that statement as the beginning of America’s war on drugs. Of course, the specific drugs Nixon was referring to were narcotics. However, the war on drugs came, in large part, only after decades of experiencing war while on drugs. Soldiers were not as commonly under the influence of narcotics for reasons besides relieving pain. However, soldiers on both sides of the conflict were using performance-enhancing stimulant drugs.

During World War II, the United States purchased and dispensed hundreds of thousands of Benzedrine pills to soldiers. They were additionally allowed two Benzedrine inhalers per year. Additionally, German soldiers used amphetamines throughout their conquests, and Japanese soldiers used them to prepare for their Kamikaze suicide missions. Whether out of ignorance or simply considering that the ends justify the means, amphetamines were as common in battle as helmets and water canteens.

But World War II did not end this war while on drugs experiment. Vietnam saw a warzone that broke all the rules of conventional tactics and strategies. This war’s physical and emotional demands earned it a notorious reputation as the first pharmacological war because of the unprecedented amount of psychoactive substances military members used during the war.

Cause and Effect

Today the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists these various drugs as Schedule II, meaning they have a high potential for abuse and severe psychological and physical dependence. Unfortunately, this is the reality for military personnel and civilians addicted to stimulants like amphetamine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states on the label of Adderall, a popular amphetamine drug, that misuse can lead to sudden death or cardiovascular issues. They also warn against dispensing the drug in any way other than “sparingly.”

Beyond these warnings, prolonged use makes dependence a very likely scenario for amphetamine users. When thinking about the monthly allowance of amphetamine that soldiers received without a prescription, and the physical and emotional toll of being on a battlefield for months and even years at a time, it is not surprising that many soldiers who survived these wars would return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), developed in part with the kind of medications being used in daily, life-threatening situations.

In particular, amphetamine addiction can lead to sleep disorders, poor nutrition, and other health concerns, further complicating the complexities of dealing with PTSD.

Recovering

Like many drugs today, stimulants have clear warning labels and prescription restrictions, but these have come in the aftermath of widespread abuse that lasted for decades. The sad pattern of history is that most drugs are only deemed dangerous after the troubling statistics become available, but at that point, it’s too late. Treating those exposed to drug abuse in the military or any profession with emotional and physical demands often entails a dual diagnosis, meaning co-occuring mental health problems come along with substance abuse. Both must be treated specifically to experience recovery.

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