Originally written on April 22, 2010

I know that this article is perhaps a few months behind the curve as far as recent events and “celebrity scandals” are concerned, but being an avid tennis aficionado and competitive player, I feel the need to comment on Agassi’s admission of recreational methamphetamine use in the late ’90s.

I started playing tennis around the age of 11, and within a couple of years had become a fairly decent tournament player for my age. This was during the late 1980s, just when a young Andre Agassi was coming on the scene and garnering fame more or less for his clothes and long hair more than for his actual tennis abilities. For the most part, I preferred to watch Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl  for their playing style, but as far as flash and fashion, I adored Agassi and his loud color combinations. I suppose I bought into to the commercial hype as well–begging my parents to buy me the Nike shoes and clothes worn by Agassi– I had the same god-awful shorts Agassi is wearing in the picture above; but hey, it was the late 80s, it was cool then.

I followed Agassi’s career off and on for the next fifteen years. I never would consider myself a fan of his, but I never rooted against him either. I gained an incredible amount of respect for him after he returned in the late 90’s/early 00’s and dedicated himself to actually being a world-class player: no more long hair and gaudy outfits. Little did I know at the time that he was returning to the game and returning to prominence after using meth-amphetamine off and on for about a year prior to that–not that I would have cared if I had known then as I certainly don’t hold it against him now.

While I can’t advocate using methamphetamine for recreational purposes, I can empathize with anyone who goes down the path of self-destruction for whatever reason and for however long they are on that path. I’ve been there myself, yet I was not a famous athlete and therefore not given the same public scrutiny; though it’s no more and no less difficult to deal with the self-scrutiny that comes along with such self-destructive behavior. The only thing that Agassi’s admission tells me, is that he is human and prone to the same mistakes as anyone else.

Now, let me give a bit of historical clarity to the advent, use and mis-use of methamphetamine. Meth was first synthesized/discovered in 1893 by a Japanese chemist. This was just a few years after the first synthesis of “regular” amphetamine. For the most part, they are very similar structurally, with meth-amphetamine having an extra methyl group. Really, the only difference in effect being that meth lasts longer–well, it has a longer half-life, thus it is metabolized more slowly. Amphetamines–I will put meth under this label– became prominent during WWII for both the Axis and the Allies. It gave soldiers the ability fight longer as it fought off fatigue. It is also known that Hitler was an avid consumer, if not addict, of amphetamines–nearly twenty years later, JFK is speculated to have picked up the habit as well.

Once the war ended, many returning soldiers had positive experiences with amphetamine for boosting mood and energy, fighting fatigue, etc.. Soon, Dexedrine (Dextro-Amphetamine) became widely prescribed for treating depression, obesity and lethargy (before ADHD had become a known medical condition). However, many Dexedrine users began abusing it and developing addictions, and by the late 60s, it had become somewhat taboo and was prescribed in much smaller numbers than before. While Dexedrine is the most well-known prescription amphetamine, meth-amphetamine has also been legally prescribed under the brand-name Desoxyn. It is still legal to prescribe Desoxyn in the US, though it is rare due to the sensationalism of the “meth epidemic” and the fact that many more profitable stimulants are pushed by the pharmaceutical industry. I’m not advocating meth, but it has been proven to be an extremely effective medication for both ADHD and Narcolepsy. Of course it is effective at a therapeutic level; recreational users of meth likely use 5, 10 even 20 times more than the therapeutic/prescribed level at a time.

Within the past 15 years, there has been a major resurgence of legally prescribed amphetamines and amphetamine-related medications due to ADHD becoming a more “mainstream” diagnosis for children and adults exhibiting symptoms that were once thought to be a result of low intelligence, depression, laziness or excitability–these all fall under the umbrella of ADD/ADHD. Ritalin (methylphenidate) was one of the first well-known medications to be widely prescribed for ADHD. Then came Adderall, an amphetamine that is roughly three quarters d-amphetamine (Dexedrine) and one quarter l-amphetamine–basically half Dexedrine and half Benzedrine (racemic amphetamine). In fact, Adderall  has its routes in Obetrol, which was used for weight loss and consisting of half d-meth-amphetamine and half racemic amphetamine. The formula was changed in the 1980s to what is now known as Adderall when Richwood/Shire bought the rights to Obetral in the mid 1990s and took advantage of the boom in ADD/ADHD diagnoses’ by re-marketing Adderall.

Considering the history of legal amphetamine and meth-amphetamine prescriptions, and the fact that these medications are still widely prescribed today and are effective when used properly, it leads one to wonder why there is such hysteria created in regard to the “meth epidemic” and why Agassi has been so ostracized for his brief foray into recreational meth use. For those in the Northeastern US, meth is not something that is widely available on the illicit drug market–I’m sure one could find it if one traveled in those circles. However, in many other parts of the country, meth is constantly in the news and for the past twenty years almost, has been called an “epidemic” by the media. I’m not trying to marginalize the horrible impact of illicit meth-amphetamine addiction on families, communities and individuals; I simply seek to put it in proper context. Low quality meth can be produced rather easily by using crude precursor chemicals and production methods by individuals with a limited or non-existent grasp of basic chemistry.

The perceptions of meth have been greatly influenced, and distorted, by a media seeking sensationalist material that will generate profit. In the case of Andre Agassi, this is no different. He has been ostracized for being involved with such a “low class” drug and lying to the ATP when he tested positive for meth in 1999. I seriously doubt any one of us in the same situation would not have done the same thing considering how ridiculously harsh the ATP is for a first time positive test for recreational drugs. Considering that they will buy just about any story given them for the positive test—Richard Gasquet tested positive for cocaine one year ago and said it was because he was kissing a woman, whom he didn’t know, who must have been doing cocaine which was passed to him through the kissing; and they bought it–why wouldn’t Agassi claim he accidentally drank some soda laced with meth by his personal assistant? It makes one wonder what other stories have been used, and accepted, by players trying to avoid suspension.

The simple fact is: Agassi made some transgressions, got his life in order, returned to tennis at a high level and even after retirement has continued to do extraordinary things through his charities, philanthropy and his charter school in Las Vegas. He simply felt he needed to let the world know the reality of his life. Because he told his story in a book, many speculated that he was just trying to sell more copies by coming forward ten years after the fact. Perhaps there is some truth to that, though I doubt he and his wife are in dire need of the extra money that the book brought them. I know from my own experience, writing about your life–the good, bad and meth-induced–is much easier and much more cathartic than any other method. Andre Agassi simply admitted to his demons and his transgressions. He overcame that and he has done much good for the world. He is simply human like everyone else and I will always consider him to be one of the “good guys” as far as us humans go.