Flashback Friday: An Oral History Of Benzedrine Use In The USA

Published in the October, 1991 print edition of High Times, “An Oral History of Benzedrine Use in The USA” by Herbert Huncke is an excerpt from the book The Drug User.
Flashback Friday: An Oral History of Benzedrine Use In The USA
High Times/ James Romberger

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’re bringing you an excerpt from The Drug User by legendary drug aficionado, Herbert Huncke, originally published in the October, 1991 edition of High Times.

Although not as well known as his fellow “Beats”—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, and Burroughs—Herbert Huncke is just as important. Writer/ junkie/thief/hustler Huncke has been in and out of prison and various addictions throughout his 70-odd years on the planet. The always-neatly-pressed Huncke has had a life checkered with adventures (quite a few of them not very pleasant), and as a result his writings are engrossing, enlightening and perversely entertaining. His last book, Guilty of Everything (Paragon House) tracked the ups and downs and ins and outs of his sometimes-debilitating heroin habit.

Benzedrine—an amphetamine—was widely used in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s by n’er-do-well crank-heads who would order it over-the-counter from their local drugstores. It first took the form of pills—Bennies—and later, nasal inhaler after the pills got a little too popular. The inhaler form proved even more handy, and the drug was subsequently reclassified under the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1971. The following is an excerpt from The Drug User (Blast Books), a compilation volume that looks at drug use from a historical perspective (deliberately ignoring the already well-documented ’60s), which is due to be released this month. Along with Huncke’s piece, there are contributions from other well-known drug users, including William S. Burroughs, Baudelaire, Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley and Jean Cocteau.

Go back to the 1930s—though it must have been discovered somewhere in the ’20s, I’m almost sure—start from say ’32, under cover before ’33, I know that— Benzedrine was then only known by a few: nurses and doctors, students at universities where they’d come in contact with science types and medical people, and a few oddballs like myself. I grew up in Chicago—so, say at the University of Chicago, someone would say, “Man, I have to cram for an exam and I’m exhausted’’—and someone would know someone who was a nurse with knowledge of this new thing called Benzedrine—“Hey, why don’t you get a few Bennies” (right away it was ‘Bennies’)—I’m guessing it started to spread like that, students in-the-know. I learned a lot about amphetamine through them.

Soon I learned that a lot people who weren’t of the underworld were piddling around with the stuff—one experience I had was the summer when I took a job as an elevator boy at the Illinois Athletic Club on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. A guy stepped into the elevator one night and asked me to buy him a bottle of pills—I think two dozen, 10 mgs, for about 89¢. This guy was considered a great athlete, and upper crust—I guess he figured I was only going to be there for a short time, and that I wasn’t likely going to squeal. Me, I could do a bottle of 20 to 25 in a period of about three days. It was a stimulating thing, as you know, and you could go for long periods doing things you liked without feeling exhausted. I liked to talk, it was a perfect talking drug. One used to stay up all night and end up at the jazz joints after hours. Life fascinated me to no end. To end up over into the Black Belt in the South Side of Chicago—there wasn’t anything that knocked me out more.

Everyone’s complaint about it though, at the beginning, was that it killed the sex drive—so many stopped using it after a short while. But OK! Perseverance corrected that assumption! See, in those days people were uptight about sex, so psychologically, you know once Bennie kicked in… well, it teases you a little. Sure—it kind of encouraged the freakish aspect—so you had to let go, and when you got going you could go for hours and hours. We found that it helped the sex drive! So that’s how basic sexual discoveries began to come about—letting go in bed, and then afterwards being less embarrassed to talk about it—they just followed their inclinations!

Benzedrine gets to the mind, too—I don’t like to separate the mental from the physical, and while I was jumping around I’d start thinking about things I’d never thought of before. Although it gave you all this energy, as I say, it didn’t make you angry. One would simply pass out the stuff—no one needed to make a buck off of it—one wasn’t inclined to steal or anything like that—that wasn’t the idea at all. You need a Bennie? Here, I have ten, here’s three or four—we weren’t so paranoid in those days…. And I’d travel around with it, too—town to town, popping. I’d leave Chicago and I could still buy without any problem—this was about the mid-’30s. Of course I kept myself well-groomed at all times, and while people didn’t look down on the drug so much yet, it always helps to have a good appearance. Once, I ran into Toledo and I had a problem getting some. It was obviously getting more popular, and some drugstores were picking up on that. I had to buy caffeine tablets that time, and suffered from it—I got ill and could not talk well.

If you start to feel trouble, of course you want to know what the trouble is, right? It still wasn’t illegal, but it had come to the attention of many people because, I think, workers in the industrial areas and truck drivers were buying it more and more to keep alert on their jobs. I remember in the road stops—in the restroom stalls—seeing “George the Bennie King was Here,” or things like that.

It was when they got hip to the pills, and they became difficult to get, that French & Kline—who had a priority claim as Benzedrine manufacturers in the US, to the best of my knowledge (they were located in Pennsylvania, if I recall)— well, they switched over to these nasal inhalers. These quickly became a big item in drug counters. It was put into a small metal container—later plastic—stuffed with some kind of gauze and rolled very tightly with not only Benzedrine, but oil of lettuce and menthol and God-knows-what else. The problem was you not only got hooked on amphets but on this other shit too! We used to share the inhalers, sitting in a cafeteria with a cup of hot coffee—by the time you got up and walked out you’d be a new man! They were very delightful, just euphoric. The world was beautiful.

They didn’t last for very long on the streets—they knew they had a problem almost immediately. Anslinger, who’d already ruined the pot scene, got on the ass of Benzedrine and got carried away with this new thing—Oh, we got something else to take care of now! Don’t you know there were a lot of payoffs down the line in the process. The cops—who still didn’t know what the fuck amphetamine was on into the ’50s—didn’t mind because, after all, what was an inhaler when it came down to it.

By 1939-40, when I hit Times Square, Bennies were illegal, but there were those of us who still managed. Over on Eighth Avenue there were a couple of drugstores tucked away that street people like myself— who hadn’t tipped our mitts—used to get by.

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