Journal of Psychoactive Drugs


Haight Ashbury Publications

Back Issues

Author Guidelines

About Us


Published by Haight Ashbury Publications





Roger C. Smith - Director, Amphetamine Research Project, San Francisco Medical Center

D. Crim - editorial board, Journal of Psychedelic Drugs


Very little is currently known about the kinds of experiences which individuals have who are compulsively injecting large doses of methamphetamine or "speed". This is partially due to the fact that the "speed freak" as we know him today is a relative newcomer to the drug scene. Perhaps most important, however, is the frantic and violent life style which make on-the-street observation both difficult and dangerous. The researcher or observer, regardless of his intentions, is suspect and not likely to be drawn into the life of a group using speed.

The Amphetamine Research Project is in a unique position in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury community, however. Since its inception, in June of 1968, the project has served dual roles of treatment and research. The staff has been of assistance in matters of obtaining housing, food, and legal services and obtaining help, but did not require that the patient subject himself to the questions of the researcher. In short, the staff was represented to the community as both helpful and interested in the problems of "speed" abuse.

This paper is concerned with the kinds of experiences with which individuals enmeshed in the speed scene have to deal, how they interpret these experiences, and how this shapes the direction they may take within the speed scene. It is by no means a complete picture. The research is currently in progress, and there are many gaping holes in our information. The data to be presented represents both formal taped interviews with speed users as well as observations made during informal contacts both in the research offices and on the street. Much of what will be said is frankly speculation, based on some of the hunches we have about the typical career of the "speed freak."

No attempt is made to analyze the many social or psychological variables which pre-date involvement in the speed scene, since these factors appear to be less important in determining what happens to an individual who involves himself in speed use than such factors as drug availability, subjective interpretations of the drug experience, the quality of social interactions, the sanctions which the community imposes on certain types of behavior, and the crucial problems which the speed freak is forced to confront as a result of his particular pattern of drug use.

Turning on to speed is almost always accomplished within a group setting, where the majority of individuals present are using speed. There are great pressures to use for the newcomer. He may be completely overwhelmed by the compulsive talking, the frantic activity, and the apparent euphoria and friendliness of the drug using members of the group. It is also true that the individual in such a group who is not "high" is unable to communicate with others in the group, for talk and the activity seem to have little meaning or relevance for him.

Since most of the young people we have seen come from middle class backgrounds, the notion of sticking a needle in their arm may initially be repugnant to them. For many, the presence of outfits and spoons is reminiscent of the "horror movies" they remember from high school hygiene classes, where such activities were associated exclusively with heroin addicts. Rarely can an individual fix himself the first time, and for many users, fixing is an impossibility and must be handled by a friend. Initially there is the fear that some permanent harm may result from missing a vein, others are fearful of the possibility of overdosing or contracting hepatitis from the needle.

Although most of the individuals with whom we talked had used other drugs in the past, primarily marijuana, the psychedelics and occasionally oral amphetamines or barbiturates, few could conceive of using a needle. How then were they turned on? A Berkeley student's experiences seem fairly typical:
“I'd always heard about people shooting drugs, but I'd always looked down on it pretty thoroughly, but when it was actually presented to me it took less than an hour to talk me into it. Mainly because I was at the level where I would have tried anything.”
Another young speed user recalls his first experience this way:
“If you're around someone that would do it and like you see them doing it around you, pretty soon you'll do it yourself. I'm pretty sure it doesn't take a particular kind of person, it doesn't take an irresponsible person.”

The majority of users seem to have been turned on either by close friends who recommended it, or were turned on by a group with whom they were staying. This has particular significance in the Haight-Ashbury district, which, despite the reputation it has acquired locally for violence and misery, still attracts large numbers of youngsters from outside the Bay Area. It is quite conceivable that these same youngsters, had they appeared on the scene during the 1967 Summer of Love, would have found a "crash pad" with those who used marijuana socially and the psychedelics for religious or philosophical reasons, and who were unalterably opposed to the use of speed, which is generally regarded by this group as an "ego trip." It is quite clear that the peer sanctions against the use of speed and other injectable drugs have broken down with the mass exodus of the "Flower Children," and that speed is now the drug of choice in this youthful subculture.

For some, the first experience with speed is quite frightening. We have seen numerous young people in the Amphetamine Research Project who were acutely anxious following their first experience with speed. It is probable that the acute anxiety reaction is the most common clinical pattern presented at the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic or other medical facilities for this reason. For many the rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, compulsive talking or physical agitation are unbearable, and some fear that they will never be able to return to a normal state. For others, the adverse effects are perceived during the comedown, with the feeling of extreme physical fatigue and mental depression, a feeling which can be immediately alleviated by repeating the process.

Those who have adverse reactions to speed following the initial experiences are in a decided minority. For most it is a gratifying physical experience. As one Berkeley user put it:
“I was pretty stoned on grass at the time, and all of a sudden I just felt elated, you get a feeling of elation, at least I do. I feel wonderful, like my whole body is just doing a physiological flip-flop.”

Part of the sought after effect is the "rush" or "flash" which the user experiences immediately after fixing, a feeling which may last from five to fifteen minutes. Although many young speed freaks make no distinction between the rush and the flash, there are those connoisseurs of speed who do. The speed manufactured by street chemists or cooks generally contains ether, used to dry the liquid methamphetamine. It is the ether or any additive, which make for the flash, often described as a total body orgasm. Street speed is also cut with a variety of substances, the most common being "Accent" a meat flavorizer which contains monosodium glutamate. Almost any substance which resembles the white crystal is used to cut street speed, although sometimes a "burn artist” or one who sells a substance like Accent for speed, may be more vicious. A 24 year-old dealer, specializing in "rush" speed describes an incident of this sort:
“I had an old lady last year that did about a dime (ten dollar bag) hit cut with rat poison. She turned purple and started gasping for breath and fell on the floor and damn near croaked.”

Fearing the "burn artist," many speeders will use only amphetamines which they think are commercially manufactured. A young dealer who is typical of this group will use only Desoxyn tablets, boiled down and injected, or what he labels "white floaty," which he claims is part of a shipment of mehtamphetamine phosphate stolen from an interstate shipment. Contemptuous of street speed, which he labels garbage, and fit only for "flash freaks," he prefers the less violent "rush," which he describes as a more "mellow" feeling, without the gagging in the throat which accompanies the injection of street speed that contains ether.

Although the physical pleasure of the rush or flash is sometimes mentioned as the reason for the continued use of speed, most users are attracted to the feeling which they experience within a group setting. Most are able to relate to others in a very open and confident fashion. This experience is described by a 21 year-old female user as follows:
“When your friends get off you feel so good, you get so close and the vibrations are just wider on speed, everybody's feeling so groovy. Like my girl friend got off. She was kind of uptight, and Joe got her off and she sat there and didn't move and she said ‘Wow, I just don't believe it, this is too much.’ We just sat and drew all night, like she drew pictures of me and I drew pictures of her and back and forth. And we rapped just furiously to our innermost soul, but it was really fun.”

For some, the initial speed experience seems to enable them to talk out all of their problems to others, even though no one else may be interested or even listening. Whether people are listening or not seems to make little difference. One user describes it this way:
“Like, when you're talking constantly, you always think people will be glad to listen and you're sure that you know everything. If you listen, its out of a sort of deference, its because you're brilliant, but you're humble too.”

The first few speed experiences tend to produce an optimism and sense of well-being that can lead to actions which may later be regretted. One user described a letter which he had written to his family in the East while stimulated, in which he gushed about his love for them, how he had found religion, and how well he was doing. Others may decide that a casual acquaintance is the finest person he has ever met or profess undying love for a member of the opposite sex.

As the effect of the amphetamine wears off, the user will begin to feel depressed and physically fatigued. He may either counteract this by again shooting up, or by crashing. In some cases, crashing occurs after a prolonged run, regardless of how stimulated the individual is. In most cases, however, the come-down is hastened by the use of depressants or "downers," commonly barbiturates or heroin.

Novices who happen to be turned on by users who are protective of them are generally instructed as to proper methods of self protection. A 24 year old male, deeply involved in the speed scene offered the following pointers for staying alive and sane when using speed:
1. Use clean hypodermic paraphernalia, and do not circulate your outfit (syringe, or eyedropper and needle) among anyone. Procure it new if possible and keep it clean, if not sterile. One good system is using permanent stainless steel needles, and a glass syringe and sterilizing them in a pressure cooker after each day of use.
2. Take plenty of vitamins, nutritional supplements and drink plenty of liquids. Vitamin C, ascorbic acid is a must, as are multivitamins and as much good food as possible. I recommend taking desiccated liver, so as to strengthen the vital organ, and protect it from becoming weakened and receptive to hepatitis.
3. The last thing of great importance is that one should never, no matter what the reason, stay awake for longer than 72 hours, as any longer than three days awake causes irreversible brain damage. If necessary in order to avoid this, a person is better off taking barbiturates or tranquilizers.

Although it is possible to be a weekender with speed, the chances are good that a young person living in an area such as the Haight-Ashbury will tend to repeat the speed experience if he finds it a pleasurable one, and, as a consequence, more and more of his life will center around obtaining and using drugs. If the newly initiated speed user fails to heed the above advice, he may quickly experience his first adverse reaction to the drug. With some it comes about with the appearance of "crank bugs," imaginary bugs under the skin. It is common to see speed freaks with open running sores or scabs on their faces or arms as a result of picking or cutting out these hallucinated crank bugs. An experienced 24 year old speed freak described crank bugs as follows:
“Its just that when you're shooting speed constantly you start to feel like there's bugs going around under your skin and you know they're not there, but you pick at them anyway. You go through all these changes scratching. Once in a while you'll see a little black spot and you'll watch it for 10 minutes to see if it moves. If it doesn't move it isn't alive. You can feel them on your skin. I'm always trying to pick them out of my eyebrows.”

Extended runs on speed, sometimes as long as two or three weeks inevitably lead to feelings of paranoia or even a full blown psychotic reaction. A common feeling, one which is usually reinforced by others within the individual's social group, is that the police are about to make a massive sweep into the house or apartment for the purpose of confiscation of whatever speed one has and arresting the user. One begins to see himself as the focus of attention, and every comment or every occurrence, no matter how far removed it may be from the user, somehow takes on new importance for him. Thus,' every police car he sees becomes the lead car in a task force dedicated to tracking him down, while strangers or even friends who make comments that are seemingly innocent become plotters against him, or undercover narcotic agents. This reaction has been observed in love relationships where one partner is suddenly seen as a conspirator against the other. We have observed groups of as many as 10 individuals where each felt that others in the group were plotting against him. In some instances, one person within the group will be singled out for no apparent reason, and the wrath of the entire group vented on him.

The paranoid speed freak is highly prone to violent behavior, but more than this, he begins to expose himself to arrest because of highly erratic and irrational behavior. Threats of mayhem and murder are common within speed groups, and many begin to collect guns and knives to make the threats more convincing. Although there is the possibility that direct assaults may take place within such a group, the impression we have is that more often direct assaults come about as a result of the individual's relationship to the speed marketplace.

As the user becomes more deeply involved in the world of speed, he must necessarily make certain commitments to that life, and must reject or is rejected by other members of the conventional community and even members of the "grass and acid" culture. As mentioned previously, a meaningful relationship between a user and a non-user is virtually impossible, both because of the speed freak's suspicions that anyone who is not using may be an undercover agent, and because few non-users are willing to put up with the constant talking and fever pitch of activity, and the generally irresponsible behavior that the freak exhibits. In some instances, the threatened disruption of a meaningful love relationship at this point will cause the speed freak to break away from this pattern of drug use. In other cases, former friends or relatives will force the individual into a treatment situation either by persuading him to voluntarily present himself for help, or by obtaining court authority for commitment as one who is potentially a danger to himself or others.

One cannot expect to be treated to speed by friends for long, thus he must begin to score for himself. Dealing speed on the street is a relatively easy way to obtain the drug, with Iittle outlay of money. The most common pattern is to begin dealing in small quantities, generally nickel or dime buys (five or ten dollar bags). This is the lowest level of dealing and is generally engaged in by people who are heavy users. It aIso is the most dangerous form of dealing, both in terms of the possibility of arrest and the more certain possibility that he will be "ripped off" or robbed of either his money or his speed by others within the scene. There is very little profits by further cutting the speed to be sold, or by "burning" the customer, by selling any substance which resembles speed. This is perhaps the most dangerous form of activity the street dealer can involve himself in, for it is common for those who have been burned to seek revenge, either by "snitching", or shooting or beating him. In some instances the "burn artist" will be injected with his own product in large doses, particularly if his customers have suffered adverse effects from his "burn speed."

The novice dealer is perhaps the most vulnerable individual in the speed scene. Learning to protect oneself on the street is an art which takes time to learn. For instance, an experienced dealer will never have the speed on him when he makes the initial contact, if he is dealing in quantities of a quarter ounce or under on the street. The exchange of speed for money should take place in a setting where the dealer will have some assurance that the customer intends to pay him for the drug. The more successful dealers seem to be those who have a reputation for fairness; where the customer is reasonably assured that the drug is what the dealer says it is, and that if the dealer himself has been burned by his connection, he will replace the bad speed. If the dealer is compulsively using the drug, it is important that he have numerous contacts and be able to get rid of the speed quickly. Not being able to "turn over" speed quickly has proven disastrous to many dealers as in this example:
“When you are dealing speed and doing it both at the same time it gets fantastically involved. You're sitting with ounces all around you, and you are saying ...hey, wow...I can do a whole spoon. That's what's happening to my connection right now. He bought up two ounces the other night and did one and a quarter before we· got any of it sold. You've got to learn to maintain with it a little.”

To the speed freak who has learned to "maintain," it would be unthinkable to buy speed from a "nickel or dime" dealer on the street. He prefers to deal with a known and trusted connection who deals in quantities from one eighth ounce to pounds. In such a situation, the customer is allowed to "taste" prior to making a purchase, which allows him to determine the quality before buying.

The lowest status in the speed world is assigned to the individual who has not learned to "maintain." He is the speed freak that "snivels over used cottons," that is, pleads with other users for the use of cottons which have been used to strain out impurities when drawing speed from the spoon.
He also is unable to "get his bread together," or save enough to make a purchase larger than five or ten dollars.
Such an individual would never be "fronted" speed, or given speed on consignment, since the connection knows from experience that he is not likely to get his money back. Although "fronting" speed is uncommon, it is still done occasionally if the user is not seen as "strung out" and if he appears to be responsible and rational. Occasionally a usually reliable user will begin to get "strung out" and the connection will balk at "fronting" to him. In response to the question "What would happen if the guy who is fronting you speed noticed that you were getting freaky and paranoid?" a 21 year old dealer-user replied:
“He would cut me off, just like he did my partner. He would say, I'm sorry man, friendship is friendship, business is business. We can still be friends and do hits together and get loaded, but I can't front you no more because you're not coming back with my money.”

Another source of money from drugs is hustling, although there are few hustlers in the speed world to compare with those in the heroin world. Perhaps the most common hustle by heroin addicts is burglary, which requires a great deal of skill to avoid arrest, and a knowledge of the kind of items which are most easily sold to a fence. This kind of an operation is run by professional fences who do not regard the speed freak as a reliable burglar, since his demeanor and irrational behavior may well call attention to himself and others involved in the operation. Usually the goods obtained by the freak in a burglary are simply traded for speed or money on an informal basis.

Another major source of speed and/or income in this scene is the "rip off," or theft directly from a dealer who has large quantities of speed or money on his person. Because this is a common practice, the more experienced dealers and users usually cover themselves, either by having a friend come along for protection, or by carrying a weapon. Many cases have been reported where, following a highly confidential sale of speed, the dealer will leave an apartment or house and immediately be held up for his money by someone who has been tipped off by the group that made the purchase.

Our hypothesis is that it is this kind of activity related to the marketplace, coupled with the paranoia induced by long runs on speed which accounts for the excessive amount of violence which prevails in a speed using community. In some cases, a speed user who has been arrested will try to talk his way out of this situation by agreeing to give the police names of users and dealers within the community. The "snitch" or "dime dropper" as he is referred to, is the object of immediate and forceful retribution if his identity becomes known, or if one is suspected of being a "snitch" or "dime dropper." Said one user of a friend who had turned "snitch":
“A cat I knew fairly well, last time he got busted he gave up 42 names. He's up in County right now giving up every name he can think of. He got a lot of people some righteous time. If he does manage to get back out on the streets he's dead this time. If he goes to the joint, he is definitely dead, without any hesitation whatsoever. When people start copping out on 'everyone on the street, pretty quick they get turned off. Or else they get stomped out or shot out. Its becoming a very violent scene up there.”

The snitch, dime dropper, burn artist, rip off and others are just some of the hazards with which the speed freak must contend if he is to survive in this scene, for the typical speed freak soon finds that he is unable to control the paranoia which inevitably overtakes him. It is at this point that he begins to use other drugs to counteract the effects of speed. Most common among the young persons we have talked with are barbiturates, generally Seconal, Tuinal, and Nembutal. Few of the speed users will wait for the effect of the drug taken orally, and prefer to boil them down and shoot them for the immediate effect. Interestingly enough, most report that barbiturates also have a "heavy flash" similar to that experienced with shooting speed. Drug switching becomes a common practice, and few users or dealers are without an ample supply of both speed and "downers." Barbiturates have several advantages over other depressants, such as heroin or morphine, in that they are easily obtainable, cheap and don't carry felony penalties for possession. On the other hand, the heavy shooter of barbiturates is seen as a menace, even to the most violent and paranoid speed freak because of the aggressive and surly demeanor of most "barb freaks." In addition, barbiturates prepared for injection by the speed freak contain numerous impurities and are sometimes difficult to get through a needle. It is common for even the most expert "fixer" to miss a vein while doing barbiturates, resulting in cellulitis or abscesses, while others force the heavy solution through the needle with such pressure that they "blow a vein."

In such a scene, the sanctions which most middle-class youngsters have against the use of heroin break down. Several bad experiences with the barbiturates may convince the user to try heroin as a downer. Most users report that heroin is a more "mellow" down, that one rarely develops or "blows" a vein, and that surly or aggressive behavior generally doesn't follow its use.

At one time heroin was most difficult to obtain, since the major source of supply was the East Coast.
West Coast heroin has traditionally been of low quality and extremely expensive. Recently, however, a low-grade Mexican heroin, almost brown in color has appeared on the streets and is used extensively by speed freaks to come down. Although most users are aware of the addictive nature of heroin, they are also aware that barbiturate addiction is a far more serious problem to deal with on the streets. It is our opinion that this new source of supply will give rise to an increasing heroin problem in San Francisco, since it is now more freely available than ever before, according to most persons close to the heroin market.

There are many reasons why speed use may be terminated after a few months. There is always the obvious possibility of arrest and incarceration for possession or dealing drugs, or possession of an outfit. Some youngsters become anxious about their erratic behavior and may seek help during a period of extreme anxiety or paranoia, if they perceive the helpers as non-punitive and understanding. There is a great fear among street speed freaks of conventional or "Establishment" agencies because of their possible relationship with the police, or the possibility that they may be involuntarily committed to a treatment institution. Many young speed freaks who have become addicted to heroin, and are therefore capable of more rational thinking, will voluntarily seek help for their addiction.

Perhaps the most common contact with traditional agencies comes about as a result of contracting serum hepatitis from using an infected needle. This is a common health hazard in the speed scene, and interestingly enough, the reputation of the hepatitis ward at San Francisco General Hospital is a good one; that is, the staff is seen as "hip" and understanding, the food and medical care good, and the company of fellow patients enjoyable.

The long term speed freak is a phenomenon which is difficult to understand. How can one find satisfaction in a social scene which offers a steady diet of violence, suspicion, disease, and possible death? For the speed freak who is not able to "maintain," his stay within this world is limited. For those who remain, two major routes seem to develop. For the speed freak who knows his limits, has numerous contacts within the speed scene, and who has acquired a reputation as a shrewd but fair dealer, he may move into higher levels of the marketplace, either as a higher level distributor of speed and other drugs, as a supplier of raw chemicals for the manufacture of speed, or into the actual manufacture of the drug itself. It is on this level that the possibility of arrest decreases, the quality of the drug assured, and the relationship between members of his group are more congenial and trusted. In addition, he can make fairly large sums of money and can afford his own apartment as well as decent clothing and food, something of which the street level speed freak is generally deprived.

The second route is perhaps the most difficult to understand. It involves a total commitment to the use and procurement of drugs, and an identity as the "biggest freak on the street." Status for such an individual is derived from how much speed he can shoot, how bizarre his dress, demeanor or behavior is, and his knowledge of drugs in general. Even the names which they give themselves reflect this orientation, names such as "Mad Bruce," "Dr. Zoom," "Crazy Tom," "Mr. Clean," "Supercrank," and "Nickidrene." In one instance, a group of individuals banned together, wore quasi-military uniforms, and labeled themselves the "Methedrine Mauraders," or "Crank Commandos."

In a community such as the Haight-Ashbury, being the biggest freak in a community of speed freaks is not an easy task. Pride in one's ability to shoot massive doses is reflected in the following statement from such a speed freak:
“I know I scared an intern half to death once. He said that a person who took 500 miiligrams would croak, so I shot a flat gram right in front of him, he turned every color of the rainbow just watchinq me. I fixed two spoons in Marin County, I'm a legend in Marin County now. They're always talking about the guy who shot two spoons.”

The same individual recalled a speed shooting contest, which he frankly admitted was a self-destructive act:
“This was a down to the death dope shooting contest. One of the two of us was supposed to die when the thing was all over. He'd shoot a half a gram and I'd shoot a gram, and he'd shoot 1 and 1/2, and I'd shoot 2 grams, then he'd shoot 2 and 1/2 and I'd have to shoot 3. Nobody would back out, we'd die before we'd back out.”

Much of the attraction of this style of life is in the fantasies which the speed freak maintains. For example, if one freak asks another if he can score five pounds of speed within the hour, both are extremely flattered and gratified. For the one who makes the request, he imagines the other will see him as a big-time dope dealer, about to make the sale of the year, while the other is flattered that someone thinks he is capable of getting his hands on five pounds of speed.

The speed freak is constantly living in a fantasy world, making plans which will elevate him out of his misery into a position of power and great prestige within the criminal world. Perhaps the most articulate description of the kinds of plans which are made nightly in the speed world is this, by a 21 year old male speed freak:
“I make lots of plans, but I don't ever carry any of them out. I get into this megalomaniac bag about five days into it, and I'll build these mountainous castles in my mind, all the far out things I'm going to do, and all the money I'm going to make. I'll be driving a Rolls Royce and have 2 speed labs going at once, a heroin refining plant, my own private two-engine plane, I'll be running the Mafia, and then when I start to come down I realize that none of it is going to exist and its like you pulled the bottom out of my brain. I feel empty and suicidal in about 4 or 5 hours.”

Another describes the way in which he rationalizes his existence in the speed world:
“I really enjoy the whole thing. When I'm out there hustling I haven't got a thing. Part of me is up tight, the rest of me is having a good time; talking all this expansive shit to everybody else. I'm building my castles about a block ahead of me, and when I get there its gone, so I build another one. But I do alright. I have my basic necessities of life and things like that. I stay a step above some of these other people who just turn into animals.”

There is no way to determine how such an individual will react to you from day to day, as his life is a series of clashes with others in the scene, scheming to score or deal, trying to kick a barbiturate habit or a heroin habit, freaking out after a long speed run, or surprisingly calm and rational when mixing drugs to achieve a state of apparent normalcy.

Such a career terminates in one of three ways generally. The most common hazard is being arrested, usually after getting extremely loose or erratic because of the particular drug he is using at the time. Secondly, he may be involuntarily committed by relatives or by a court following arrest, and finally, death, either from an overdose of heroin or barbiturates or being murdered by others within the scene. If the latter possibility seems overly dramatic, one has only to look at the homicide rate involving speed dealers and users in the Haight-Ashbury during the last year.

Although many speed freaks will assure you that they have little desire to change their life style, and that they are quite happy with their lives, this concluding quote, from a young man deeply involved in the speed scene, reveals the hopelessness, despair, and misery he feels:
“My life, though freaky, has assumed a sense of quasi-normality, at least compared to some of the righteous freaks and loose people on the street. But, in the last two years, I have attempted suicide three times, and have blown my mind at least two score and ten times. I will cop out to being freaked out, and generally loose. As to speed.....They tell me it will kill me, but they don't say when.”





Vol. 2 (2)

Spring 1969

Speed Kills:  A review of Amphetamine Abuse



Copyright Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. All Rights Reserved.