Similar to other ADHD medications, like Adderall in the US, Dextroamphetamines found their beginnings in Australia as a study drug.
Known to most by their street name, “dexies”, it wasn’t uncommon to find the struggling, sleep deprived student, in for the late-night haul, downing the tiny tablets, hoping for a burst of energy and hyper-focus.
But in recent years, dexies seem to have moved from the study hall and into the clubs as an alternative to things like MDMA, cocaine and ketamine. For one: they’re cheaper, and two: they’re easier to get your hands on.
While the energy from a dexie can be invigorating, allowing its user to stay awake into the early hours of the morning, little has been said about its potential side-effects for those using it in a recreational setting.
VICE talked to Dr Andrew Lawrence, a senior principal research fellow at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health at The University of Melbourne, to find out.
Doctor Lawrence’s main area of research circles addiction, mostly in alcohol, but with previous experience in nicotine, opioids, stimulants and amphetamines.
So what actually is a dexie?
“So Dextroamphetamine [the proper name for dexies] and Methylphenidate [Ritalin] are the two main treatments for ADHD,” Dr Lawrence told VICE.
“[ADHD] is caused, in part, by dysregulated catecholamine release [chemicals that the brain and nerves produce], particularly dopamine, which causes hyperactivity and the inability to concentrate.”
According to Lawrence, the actions of chemicals, like dopamine, are terminated (or stopped) in two ways: through metabolism and/or when they’re transported back into the nerve terminal in the brain. It’s a process that stops excessive stimulation.
“What amphetamines do is they reverse that transporter process. So they're actively putting more neurotransmitters out into the synapses, preventing it from being taken back up to the brain. So then the only mechanism to terminate its action while the drugs are on board is metabolism, which is a slower mechanism.”
For people with ADHD, this process reduces hyperactivity and heightens concentration.
“You would not predict that it would have that effect. But, paradoxically, it does. And so it works quite effectively. They work almost straight away. You don't have to have a period of time for them to be on board like you do with antidepressants, for example, to get a positive outcome.”
What about when people who don’t have ADHD use it?
Really, the answer is simple: dexies will make you feel more awake and hyperactive by increasing ‘feel good’ chemicals.
“In people without ADHD, that's what dextroamphetamine will do as well: it'll increase chemicals like dopamine. So that's why it acts as a stimulant in people that use it recreationally, because what you're doing is elevating – acutely – dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin levels in areas of the brain and body.”
So what happens when you mix dexies with alcohol?
“If you take dextroamphetamines and alcohol together, as we've said, dexies are a stimulant, alcohol is a depressant. On a behavioural level they'll tend to counteract each other to a degree,” said Dr Lawrence.
Lawrence cited a study from 2012 where drunk drivers were tested with and without dextroamphetamines in their system.
“So, alcohol caused increased risk-taking behaviours, impaired tracking, impaired attention and impaired reaction time during a three hour period after drinking. And the stimulatory effects of dextroamphetamines at 10 milligrams [a regular dose is 10-20mg every 4 hours] were not sufficient to overcome the impairing effects of alcohol.”
“So it's probably not a good thing to try and use the two things at the same time. You're still going to be exhibiting a lot of risk-taking behaviour, you're still going to be impaired.”
It also depends on how much alcohol you’ve consumed. If you're tired or slow or unresponsive from alcohol, it’ll take a lot of dexies to reverse that.
What about weed?
Like alcohol, dexies - to some extent - could also counteract weed. But there may be side effects, too.
“You may potentially see psychotic side effects, because there are some people that are susceptible to having psychosis from both stimulants and the use of marijuana, particularly long term use of marijuana,” said Dr Lawrence.
“So if you are one of those people that are susceptible, then combining the two together could make it even more likely.”
When it comes to why some people may prefer dexies over other drugs, Dr. Lawrence says it’s hard to say. Really, it depends on the person.
“Could be due to the time course of the effect, the subjective experience, availability, cost – lots of factors.”
And what about the long-term risks? Should anyone rushing out on a Saturday night with a couple dexies in their bag be concerned?
Now, this is the scary part and the part most people don’t want to hear. But bad news: here it is anyway.
“In terms of side effects, if you have amphetamines by itself they mimic the effects of noradrenaline and adrenaline in your system,” said Dr Lawrence.
“So what that tends to do is it increases your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, and you might become more prone to vasospasms and heart problems, such as arrhythmias. If you do it for a long time, you may be more prone to things like having a stroke.”
When it comes to addiction, Dr Lawrence says it really relies on your susceptibility. For some people, it won’t be a problem. For others, it might.
“The reality is the majority of people that use drugs experimentally don't become addicted to them. But, there is a significant minority that do become addicted. And there's probably a range of reasons that contribute to that, some of which are genetic, some of which are physiological, some of which are behavioural. And some of which we simply just don't know.
“So it's going to be a bit like playing Russian roulette, because you don't know until you start whether you're going to be one that's very susceptible to becoming addicted or not. And by the time you find out, it's probably too late.”
And would Dr. Lawrence recommend using it recreationally?
No, absolutely not.
“I would not recommend them to be used recreationally,” he said.
“I mean, there's a number of issues around that. There's potential legal issues of using a controlled substance recreationally. There's potential harm that can be done from just a single use. There's certainly harm that can come from multiple uses.
“I'm not a party pooper by any stretch, but I certainly would not recommend it.”
While dexies have found fame in the clubs for their feel-good and energising effect, like any drug being used in a recreational setting and not for their original purpose, the results on the body aren’t so good. Yet it’s unlikely that that will stop most people anyway.
The key is, in any party situation, to be responsible, take it slow and listen to your body.
So, there you have it. Dexies: good to treat what they were literally created to treat, and a bit sketchy otherwise.