Adderall, Ambien, and the “Boner King”

The Longform guide to making, taking, and selling pills.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

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The Rise and Fall of the Cincinnati Boner King
Amy Wallace  • GQ • September 2010

A jailhouse interview with Steve Washak, who made millions selling “natural male enhancement” pills.

The ads just ooze intentional cheeziness, none more so than “Enzyte Christmas. ”In the (unlikely) event you’ve never seen it, picture an office holiday party: reindeer sweaters, cubicles festooned with garlands, and antler-headed colleagues engaged in photocopier high jinks. Into this jolly tableau strides Smilin’ Bob—just your average middle manager with a bigger-than-average grin—in a Santa suit. “Not long ago, Santa decided he needed a little more room in his sled,” goes the smarmy voice-over, as a whistling theme song plays in the background. “So he made a call to Enzyte about natural male enhancement. And after a few short weeks, what did he get?” The camera cuts to a group of women who titter and leer in Bob’s general direction. “Why, not only a sleigh full of confidence and a sack full of pride, but it looks like Bob got the one thing that every lady likes: the joy of a gift that keeps on”—big pause—“giving.”


The Big Sleep
Ian Parker  • The New Yorker  • December 2013

On Ambien and the search for the next blockbuster insomnia drug.

Ambien can be disinhibiting and depersonalizing. Or, to quote from the label of a bottle of sleep medication used by Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, on “30 Rock”: “May cause dizziness, sexual nightmares, and sleep crime.” Zolpidem enters the gut, passes into the bloodstream, squeezes through the liver, and then crosses the blood-brain barrier, to make gaba receptors more receptive to gaba. When the neurotransmitter sticks to its target, negatively charged chloride ions flow into cells, making the inside of the cells more negative, and less likely to fire. Traffic is interrupted, signals don’t reach their destinations, and the brain starts to quiet. Many people experience this as a contented swoon that silences inner chatter while giving a half glimpse of childhood; they are overtaken by sleep, like a three-year-old in a car seat.


But others resist sleep and embrace the woozy, out-of-body license. To some, this is an opportunity to take part in what Rachel Uchitel, a former girlfriend of Tiger Woods, has reportedly described as “crazy Ambien sex.” At the London Olympics, some Australian swimmers took Ambien to build team spirit. After taking the drug, they larked around and knocked on the doors of other athletes. As one of them later put it, they allowed themselves “to be normal for one night.” Because the drug had been banned by the Australian Olympic Committee, and because the team failed to win medals that it was expected to win, this became a national scandal.


Kickstart My Heart
Molly Young •  n+1 •  January 2008


On the Adderall days of college.

Faking ADHD is a cakewalk, but the testing process is expensive. It is easier to buy the drug from those who already have it, for $2 a pill, or $3, or $5 if you are dim enough to make your purchase during finals period. The summer after sophomore year, stranded without Bronson and determined to write a novel, I found an online foreign pharmacy that sent encrypted catalogs of drugs to my Gmail account. Rohypnol, Valium, Oxycodone, Prozac, and Ritalin were all in stock—no Adderall, but Ritalin would do in a pinch. (Ritalin is the Salieri to Adderall’s Mozart.) I bought thirty tabs of generic Ritalin with a moneygram. It cost fifty dollars, but I was living at home that summer, and also, I reasoned, I’d save money on all the food I wouldn’t eat.


A Tale of Two Drugs
Barry Werth • Technology Review • October 2013

New medicines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Are they worth it? A look at how a pair of pharmaceutical companies set their prices.

There are inherent problems with a system where the government is one of the biggest payers, and where doctors, hospitals, insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, drug companies, and investors all expect to profit handsomely from treating sick people, no matter how little real value they add to patients’ lives or to society. Drug companies insist that they need to make billions of dollars on their medicines because their failure rate is so high and because they need to convince investors it is wise to sink money into research. That’s true, but it’s also true that the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, buys more than 50 percent of its prescription drugs. And it buys them at prices designed to subsidize the rest of the industrial world, where the same drugs cost much less, although most poor governments can’t afford them at even those lower prices.


Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That

Daniel Berger • New York Times Magazine  • May 2013

The pharmaceutical quest to give women a better sex life.

Half a century ago, the birth-control pill offered women the ability to switch off ovulation, to separate sex from reproduction. It played a part, as the ‘60s got under way, in propelling a host of profound changes, cultural as well as reproductive, societal as well as intimate — in how women saw themselves and lived their lives, starting with the notion of women being above all baby makers and mothers. The promise of Lybrido and of a similar medication called Lybridos, which Tuiten also has in trials, or of whatever chemical finally wins the race for F.D.A. approval, is that it will be possible to take a next step, to give women the power to switch on lust, to free desire from the obstacles that get in its way. “Female Viagra” is the way drugs like Lybrido and Lybridos tend to be discussed. But this is a misconception. Viagra meddles with the arteries; it causes physical shifts that allow the penis to rise. A female-desire drug would be something else. It would adjust the primal and executive regions of the brain. It would reach into the psyche.


Use Only as Directed
T. Christian Miller, Jeff Gerth • ProPublica  • September 2013

During the last decade, more than 1,500 Americans died after accidentally taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety: acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.

That same year, 321 people died from acetaminophen toxicity, according to CDC data. More than half–166–died from accidental overdoses. The rest overdosed deliberately or their intent was unclear. For the decade 2001 through 2010, the data shows, 1,567 people died from inadvertently taking too much of the drug.

Acetaminophen overdose sends as many as 78,000 Americans to the emergency room annually and results in 33,000 hospitalizations a year, federal data shows. Acetaminophen is also the nation’s leading cause of acute liver failure, according to data from an ongoing study funded by the National Institutes for Health.


Behind these statistics are families upended and traumatized and, in the worst cases, shattered by loss.

Waking Up From the Pill
Vanessa Grigoriadis • New York • November 2010

Fifty years ago, birth-control pills gave women control of their bodies, while making it easy to forget their basic biology—until, in some cases, it’s too late.

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.

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