The Right Chemistry: Once a weapon, methamphetamine is now a target



Law enforcement authorities are working to curb production in clandestine labs of the stimulant that, in 1940, helped the Nazis invade France.

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The Coca-Cola Company was not happy. In 1999, a German chocolate manufacturer had filed an application in the United States to register SCHO-KA-KOLA as a trademark for its brand of caffeine-rich chocolate produced from cocoa beans, coffee beans and the fruit of the kola tree. Coca-Cola disputed the registration on grounds that “the name is likely to cause confusion with, and dilute, the famous trademark Coca-Cola, which has long been used and registered for beverages and a wide range of products.” The complaint was upheld and registration of SCHO-KA-KOLA as a trademark was denied.

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Chocolatier Theodore Hildebrand first formulated SCHO-KA-KOLA in 1935 with the idea of producing an ideal stimulant for German athletes at the following year’s Berlin Olympic games. The popularity of the brand increased dramatically during the war, when the chocolate was provided to Luftwaffe pilots as well as to tank and submarine crews to induce wakefulness and alertness. This led to the myth, repeated in many historical accounts, that the real reason that the chocolates, known colloquially as “Fliegerschokolade,” or “aviator chocolate,” were so prized was that they actually contained amphetamines. They did not. The stimulant effect was due completely to caffeine, with a serving containing about as much caffeine as a strong cup of coffee.

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While Fliegerschokolade never contained amphetamines, these drugs were widely used during the Second World War both by the Germans and the Allies. Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887 by Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu, who was looking for an improved version of ephedrine, a naturally occurring component of the ephedra plant that had been isolated just two years earlier. Ma huang, as ephedra is known in traditional Chinese medicine, was of interest because of its rich history as a stimulant and an aid for respiratory problems.

As is often the case, when a plant component has medicinal value, chemists explore the possibility of making changes in the basic molecular structure for greater efficacy. This is exactly what Edeleanu was attempting to do when he synthesized amphetamine. However, his interest switched to developing a process for refining crude oil and he failed to pursue amphetamine further. In 1932, American chemist Gordon Alles, unaware of Edeleanu’s earlier work, independently synthesized amphetamine, again trying to improve on the action of ephedrine. He first tested the new compound on guinea pigs, and then became his own guinea pig, noting that his nasal congestion disappeared. He also experienced a “feeling of well-being!” Alles approached the Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm Smith, Kline and French about a partnership, and soon Benzedrine entered the marketplace as a treatment for congestion and asthma in the form of an inhaler. It wasn’t long before the drug attained a reputation as a stimulant, especially after its use by American athletes at the Berlin Olympics.

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German chemist Friedrich Hauschild at the Temmler-Werke pharmaceutical company was aware of the use of Benzedrine at the Olympics, and trying for one-upmanship, synthesized methamphetamine, a close cousin of amphetamine. This compound had actually first been made from ephedrine in 1919 by Akira Ogata in Japan, but Hauschild developed a method to produce the drug on a large scale under the name Pervitin.

Although Pervitin was available to the general public in pharmacies, it was on the battlefield that it would make its mark. Nazi ideology considered the use of social drugs as a sign of weakness and moral decay, but Pervitin was an exception. Unlike alcohol or opiates, methamphetamine was not considered to be about escapist pleasure, but rather about achieving physical and mental superiority, very much in line with Nazi goals. Methamphetamine-enhanced soldiers would require less sleep and fight longer and harder!

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This was exactly what was needed for Blitzkrieg, a lightning quick strike that would catch the enemy off-guard. When German troops invaded Poland, they were energized with Pervitin, but the drug probably played its biggest role in the invasion of France through the Ardennes forest. The Allies had assumed that because of the challenging terrain the German advance would be slow and there would be time to move defensive troops into position. But General Heinz Guderian who led the invasion demanded that his tank crews go sleepless for at least three nights to speed the advance and Pervitin made that possible. In his memoirs, Churchill noted that he had been dumbfounded by the German tanks advancing night and day.

With the extensive use of Pervitin, problems began to crop up. There were reports of high blood pressure, heart attacks and addiction. By 1941, the Germans had cut back on the use of methamphetamine, but Benzedrine became a staple for British and American troops to combat fatigue and boost morale. In Japan, where the drug was produced as Philopon, it was commonly issued to kamikaze pilots. Later, amphetamines were widely used by the U.S. military in the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars to decrease fatigue.

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Today, methamphetamine is involved in a different kind of warfare. The fight is between authorities trying to curb its illegal production by clandestine labs that crank out billions of tablets and “crystal meth,” a form of the drug that can be smoked. Rising crime rates and a host of medical problems are the price paid when it comes to the quest for instant euphoria by individuals addicted to crystal meth.

As far as SCHO-KA-KOLA goes, it is still produced and is popular in Germany, commonly sold at gas stations to keep drivers alert. Although not available in stores here, like almost everything else, it can be purchased online. But it is much more expensive than a cup of coffee.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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