When it comes to the government and its war on drugs, sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left is peddling. This is especially true regarding the use of amphetamines.
From the Drug Enforcement Agency we hear that speed can lead to "addiction, psychotic behavior, and brain damage…Chronic use can cause violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, delusions, and paranoia." Sounds like terrible stuff, right? Not if you listen to the U.S. Air Force.
As it happens, American flyboys are given dextroamphetamine—a drug the DEA compares to methamphetamine and which military personnel affectionately refer to as "go pills"—to help them fight battle fatigue and stay knife-edge sharp during their long and difficult shifts.
During the war in Afghanistan, "Pilots were allowed to 'self-regulate' their own doses and kept the drugs in their cockpits," reported the unfortunately named Andrew Buncombe for the London Independent. "When they returned, doctors gave them sedatives or 'no-go pills' to help them sleep. Pilots who refused to take the drugs could be banned from taking part in a mission."
All well and good—use was so uneventful that most Americans were probably unaware that our airmen were popping pills more potent than aspirin. But then came the event.
On a routine air-cover flight in April last year, Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a clutch of Canadian soldiers after seeing what they claim was gunfire from the ground. The friendly fire killed four Canucks and wounded eight others.
Now in the middle of an "Article 32" commission hearing—much like a grand jury—the defense is blaming the bombing on the fog of drugs rather than the fog of war, claiming the two were jacked up on speed. If eventually court-martialed, the dope duo could be booted out of the service and spend the next 60-plus years in orange jumpsuits. Of all possible alternatives, one of the best ways to duck responsibility would be to pin the blame on military pill-pushers.
This has painted the government into an interesting corner, as it has now been forced to come out and publicly defend the drug. Last week the Air Force Surgeon General sent one if its physicians to do something that no doubt gave people in the drug reform movement more laughs than presidential candidate Clinton's confession to smoking pot but not inhaling: Air Force Dr. Pete Demitry actually praised speed.
"He told a news conference the Air Force has used the stimulant safely for 60 years and that it is better than coffee because it not only keeps users awake, but also increases alertness," reported Reuters. "There had been no known speed-related mishaps in the Air Force, whereas there had been many fatigue-related accidents, Demitry said."
Because of the danger of drowsy Red Barons at the stick of F-16s and the like, Demitry said that the need for amphetamines "is a life and death issue for our military."
Given such a vital need, how much drug use is going on? Col. Alvina Mitchell, chief of Air Force media operations, has told reporters she doesn't know the current rates, but if previous wars are anything to go by, the numbers are quite substantial. "A survey of pilots who took part in the 1991 Desert Storm operation suggests 60 percent of them took [dextroamphetamine]," according to Buncombe. "In units most heavily involved in combat missions, the rate was as high as 96 percent. During Desert Storm, the standard dosage of [dextroamphetamine] was 5mg. In Afghanistan it was 10mg." This is nothing big; usual doses for adults can range from 5 to 60mgs a day, depending on need.
Ironically, the drug, branded Dexedrine, carries the warning that it "may impair judgment or coordination. Do not drive or operate dangerous machinery [like F-16s, for instance] until you know how you react to the medication." Once a user knows how he reacts, however, the presumption is that the drug is relatively safe. After all, the Air Force trusts tired men to zip through the air with extremely lethal, million-dollar equipment.
The obvious follow-up: If it is good and safe enough for pilots, what about the rest of us? With "no known speed-related mishaps" why shouldn't taxicab drivers, swing-shifters at NEC, or bleary-eyed night-school students be able to take advantage? It's not as if only pilots must battle fatigue, and these folks are certainly not in the position to drop 500-pound bombs on innocent Canadians. A government that punishes people for using a substance it praises as vital seems worse than hypocritical.
In Leonard Wibberley's The Mouse that Roared, the national symbol of the duchy of Grand Fenwick is "a double-headed eagle saying 'Yea' from one beak and 'Nay' from another." When next looking for a spokesperson to discuss amphetamine use, perhaps the U.S. government should lease the bird.