In 1943, the Smith, Kline and French pharmaceutical company added chili pepper extract to Benzedrine, its popular decongestant inhaler. The fiery taste of capsaicin, the compound responsible for the “spiciness” of hot peppers, was meant to keep people from opening the inhaler case and consuming the contents. Why would anyone want to do that? It’s simple: the active ingredient in the Benzedrine inhaler was amphetamine, a compound that could provide a high!
When snorted as directed, amphetamine was an effective decongestant, but when the contents of the inhaler were swallowed whole, amphetamine produced a psychotropic effect. It wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience, given that the amount of amphetamine in the inhaler was 250 milligrams, far more than the 5–10 milligrams of tablets that were prescribed at the time as a mood-enhancing drug.
The habit of cracking the inhaler had emerged in the 1930s in the jazz music community. Charlie Parker, the famous saxophonist, was known to break open a benzedrine inhaler before playing. But it was in the early 1940s that the abuse of inhalers made its mark. While amphetamine pills required a prescription, inhalers were readily available over the counter. Wardens in military prisons were sometimes known to supplement their income by smuggling inhalers to prisoners for a handsome profit. In an Indiana prison, a guard was caught with more than three hundred inhalers in his room!
Smith, Kline and French really began to worry when they learned that drug addicts in British Columbia were breaking up inhalers and inflating the contents after mixing them with morphine. The fear was that this would lead Canadian authorities to take steps to legislate amphetamine as a narcotic, preventing the sale of benzedrine inhalers without a prescription. This in turn would mean a significant loss of income. SKF therefore proposed to add capsaicin to the inhaler, as well as a black dye which would leave an ugly color in the abuser’s mouth. The idea was that the irritation produced by the capsaicin and the marks left by the telltale black dye would discourage injection or ingestion of the contents of the inhaler.
The effectiveness of these deterrents is unclear, but their addition to products has alienated lawmakers. California needed a little more convincing, so SKF promised to add black dye and picric acid to their product there. Picric acid tasted awful and nauseous, which was supposed to prevent internal use. With this maneuver, SKF managed to buy enough time to find an amphetamine substitute in its inhaler, which it did in 1949. Benzedrex, the new “non-stimulation” inhaler, contained propylhexedrine as an ingredient active and replaced benzedrine as the active ingredient. over-the-counter inhaler for people with nasal congestion. Today, benzedrine is a thing of the past, but prescription amphetamine is used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, and depression. Sadly, the abuse is still there, especially that of methamphetamine, a close relative produced illegally by underground chemists as prominently featured in “Breaking Bad.”