Your Military on Drugs

I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, there was a little factoid that slipped out of the news media recently that was really a bombshell, only it hasn’t been treated that way, which to me is a mystery but worth a look. This factoid came out as a result of the incident in which two national guard pilots from my home state Illinois “accidentally” killed 4 Canadians and hurt a bunch more in a “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan during our supposed “rout” of the Taliban. These pilots (as are most all such pilots apparently) were high on drugs! “Go pills” to be exact. We just know them as “speed.”

“This is your brain on drugs!” Who can’t forget the TV PSA of the guy cracking the eggs in the hot skillet and calming reciting that memorable line? You bet your life that “speed” was and is included in the word “drugs” as it appears in that sentence. Now it’s “if you use drugs, even a little, you’re supporting terrorism.” Again, without a doubt the writers of this TV PSA mean “drugs” to include “speed.” So are we to conclude that either the military is supporting terrorism or the government has a secret supply of these illegal drugs that don’t come from terrorists?

Think of the vehemence of the “war on drugs,” and how we have built and are maintaining a “prison industrial complex,” (my home region Southern Illinois ‘ economy is now prison-based, for example) as Jesse Jackson aptly calls it, largely based on arrests for possession of drugs, and how our freedoms are being quashed to wage this war. When I think of the fear and paranoia that I have suffered just because I wanted to grow a couple cannabis plants on my own land for use in my own home, and knowing how much stronger and dangerous “speed” is than cannabis, I am filled with more disgust and anger. Yes, to me the revelation that our government is funding our military’s illegal drug habits while funding prisons for me if I should get caught with the same substance is particularly outrageous.

In the last few weeks, as this factoid has sifted through my mind, I have tried to pinpoint exactly what outrages me the most. I went back in my memory to my first encounter with “speed.” I was a freshman in 1970 at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois, living in Olson hall. Olson hall was almost a symbol of the expansion of the Illinois State Teacher’s college system into a state university system. In the late 50s through the 70s big bucks flowed into the Illinois State Teacher’s colleges to build dorms and all kinds of buildings in anticipation of the big flow of middle class kids like me striving for a university degree leading to a good job and security for life. There was a wives’ tale that Richard Nixon had come to WIU once and called it “the Harvard of the Midwest.” Not! Just read Kurt Vonnegut’s essay about his night in Macomb. Macomb did not then and does not now present any kind of permissive or liberal atmosphere. In fact, it’s probably about as conservative a place as you’ll find in a state university town in Illinois. That’s the context of my recollections and the foundation of my outrage.

No one else from my high school was going to WIU. When that fact was combined with the fact that you HAD to live in the dorms as a freshman, (someone had to pay for those buildings), I had no choice but to check the “I don’t care who I get put with in a dorm room” box on one of the many forms I had to fill out to go. My roommate was Michael John, from Brookfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. (Yes, where the zoo is). It was the random collision of small town Southern Illinois and suburban Chicago in 1970. Needless to say, there were differences between our views of what was routine and normal in life. But this also was during the Vietnam War, the Beatles, Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, etc. “Drugs” were part of growing up. Suburbia had them long before they were widespread in the rural areas, this is what I learned from Michael John.

It is a comedy unto itself the details of how Michael John corrupted my innocent world, and that isn’t the point of this story. However, there is relevance to the subject of this essay. I recall a day after we had lived together for a month or so. I was in the dorm room with him. We shared a dresser. He was laying on his bed when I walked in the room from classes. Black Sabbath was playing on the record player. I put my books down on the desk and sat on my bed.

Michael John asked me how things were going. I told him how my classes mostly sucked and how I would never be tricked into registering for another 8 am class. He told me to look in the third dresser drawer. I said, “that ‘s one of yours.” He said, “open it.” I walked over and opened it. The drawer was literally full of little white pills. Each one had a white “X” etched into it. He asked me if I had ever tried any “white cross.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I did come to learn that he was talking about “speed.” White cross – the most common form of “speed” or amphetamine- and he had hundreds of tablets and he was selling them cheap. Being roommate, and being the small town boy that I was, Michael John was anxious to corrupt me even more. He wryly smiled and told me to take some and try it sometime.

Of course, I was trying to be cooler than your average small town hick student. I was letting my hair grow long, wearing colorful T-shirts, I had even tried smoking pot. But this was my first encounter with “speed.” I took a few and put them in my drawer. He explained to me that you could stay up all night if you took one. I started to ask other acquaintances that I had met what they knew about it. No one seemed to know a lot about it except that it helped you stay up all night and that people used it to study for finals. The night before my next big test, I opened the drawer, looked at one of the pills, picked it up, looked at it again, then went out to the fountain and took it. It didn’t take long and I was buzzing. I was amazed. I didn’t get tired. I stayed up all night like it was nothing. I felt good – not intoxicated high like booze or even pot, but a nice high energy buzz that just kept me going, feeling good, positive, alive, and awake. I wondered where this little old drug had been for me all my life.

However, I was reminded over and over that it was illegal – by various means. I always snuck around with them. Hid them. I wasn’t hooked or anything. Only took them during finals and all night parties. Ok, so the crashes were a little harsh. They only lasted a day or two. I tried to stay to myself and avoid my friends as I tended to be a little depressed and crabby. But when it came to needing an all night cram before a final, staying up late for a party, or even just shacking up with your girlfriend in your dorm room all night, there was nothing better.

I would come to find out that white cross wasn’t the only kind of speed available – it was just the cheapest and most available. There were also Christmas trees – capsules that were half green and half red, black beauties – capsules that were all black, and these large light yellow “speed” tablets. These doses were much greater than the average white cross. You could expect to be up for a couple days before crashing. Yeah, you paid in the end, but the trip there was great. And believe me – I wasn’t the only one doing it. It was readily available and it was common practice.

But as I started to say – I knew from the very first time that I laid eyes on Michael V’s drawer full of white cross in the fall of 1970 that this was contraband. My flirtations with speed only lasted a couple years and I gave it up. Fear of being busted and crash fatigue wore me down. I just had the feeling after a “speed” rush and its unavoidable crash was over, that this had been hard on me. But I have never forgotten the rush from good speed, although it has been close to 30 years since I felt it.

But speed hasn’t left society as a black market commodity. Not by any means. How much press have we had here in the rural Midwest (and across the country) in last several years about people stealing anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer tanks, buying large amounts of Sudafed, and concocting them in kitchen labs to make what is commonly referred to as “meth.” How much money are the cops getting to root out the “meth labs?” I don’t have the figures, but it has to be significant.

Yet, what is “meth” but methamphetamine? Amphetamine is speed. Basically, meth labs are cheap ways to make speed, because people like the way it makes them feel, and it can help them keep up with the schedule of today’s world, or forget about it’s stresses and failures. It’s a cheap and effective high – no doubt about it. But make no mistake about it – the war on drugs is aimed firmly at meth labs, and probably rightly so. Anyone that would try to break into an anhydrous ammonia tank is probably a sandwich short of a picnic anyway. But also, make no mistake about it – methamphetamine is “speed.” Perhaps not the exact same formulation as what our pilots are getting, but likely very close and triggering the same reactions in the body – a.k.a. “This is your brain on drugs.” If you or I was caught with one of the Air Force “speed” pills in our pockets while driving a car, it is unimaginable the legal problems you would face, especially if you killed someone while you were doing it.

But no one is mentioning the crashes that these military people are also experiencing after coming down off the drugs. Are they getting enough time to chill out between drug episodes? What are the health and psychological effects of this? Are pilots the only military folks on drugs? Could this be contributing to the domestic violence crisis within the military? So many questions, so few answers.

Is this the epitome of hypocrisy? It’s ok if you are an Air Force pilot (or maybe a marine) whom needs help staying awake so you can kill and destroy more effectively to take drugs. The military can buy large amounts of drugs and nothing is said about supporting terrorism. But if you are a college student, who needs to stay up to cram for an exam, then you should be put in jail for violating our drug laws and derided for supporting terrorism – “even just a little.” That’s the message I get from this, and it both confuses me and makes me angry. The government owes the people more of an explanation about this than what we have gotten, and again the mainstream press is missing the boat by not investigating more.

Yes, this is the perfect symbol of the hypocrisy of the right wing. It’s ok to bend their rigid moral standards when power and military force are at stake, but when individual’s freedom, rights, and enjoyment are at stake, oppress the people and slap harsh penalties on them for the very same actions your military folks take. This is a government that is incapable of self-control and self-policing. And this is just one example of such contradictions. This factoid has exposed the deep falsehoods and rhetoric surrounding the war on drugs, which is now more than ever a war against integrity, justice, and compassion.

MARK DONHAM lives in Brookport, Illlinois. He can be reached at: