Ephedrine is a stimulant drug, a close chemical relation to methamphetamine, albeit with weaker effects. It is not (yet) illegal, but the powers that be are working on it, the given justification being that it is a chemical precursor in methamphetamine manufacturing. (A single oxygen atom is the difference between ephedrine and meth, though the former's isomer, pseudoephedrine (an ingredient in over-the-counter decongestants), is more often used for this purpose.) Buy it now while you still can!
Ephedrine is a bronchodilator and so is effective as a temporary over-the-counter remedy for asthma. It is also effective as a stimulant and is sometimes sold in truck stops to truck drivers for this purpose. Because it is a methamphatetamine precursor, its sales at truck stops have been severely curtailed since 2006 due to the U.S. federal law requiring buyers show I.D. and sign for their purchase. Most such stores don't want to bother with the red tape. It is still easily available in pharmacies under the Primatene Tablets, Bronkaid, DMD Pharmaceutical, and other brand names as an asthma remedy, though (if you don't mind showing I.D. and signing for your purchase).
Purchasers of ephedrine are now limited to the same monthly legal limits as also applies to pseudoephedrine cold remedies such as Sudafed. Some individual U.S. states have made both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine prescription-only, while others have not. Some misinformation continues to circulate on the Internet that ephedrine itself is banned completely in the U.S. or is prescription-only at the federal level. Both are still untrue as of 2011.
In the UK at the moment, it is legal to possess small amounts of ephedrine. It is contained in many cold and asthma remedies available in chemist shops. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Control Agency have proposed making it a prescription-only drug. Their aim is to make unprescribed ephedrine illegal.
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It was also used — usually in combination with caffeine — in "diet pills" until the FDA put a stop to the practice. Its use as a "performance-enhancing drug" is banned by the International Olympic Committee. Ephedrine promotes modest short-term weight loss, specifically fat loss, as well as decreasing gastric emptying. Methylxanthines, such as caffeine and theophylline, have a synergistic effect with ephedrine with respect to weight loss. This led to creation and marketing of compound products. One of them, known as the ECA stack, contains caffeine and aspirin besides ephedrine, and is a popular supplement taken by body builders to cut down body fat before a competition.
Another chemically-related over-the-counter asthma remedy, clenbuterol, which is illegal in the United States because its use by farmers to keep cattle and pigs thin results in toxic levels of the drug building up in the meat, has a similar reputation as a fad diet and bodybuilding drug and is obtained through gray-market channels from Europe, where it is legal.
Since the FDA ban on the inclusion of ephedrine mixed with caffeine in purported diet and bodybuilding pills, marketers have switched to synephrine in conjunction with caffeine as the active ingredient. Synephrine has some similar effects to ephedrine, with more pressor effects and less central effects, but is not a methamphetamine precursor.
“”There have been reports that stroke, seizure, heart attack, arrhythmia, psychosis and death might be associated with the ingestion of ephedrine […] Individuals who consume caffeine with this product may experience serious adverse health effects.
|—From a label. Great stuff.|
The herb ephedra (also known as ma huang or Mormon tea, depending on which species, and as 麻黃 or má huáng in Chinese), illegal to sell in the United States since 2004 per an FDA ruling, contains naturally occurring ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, phenylpropanolamine, and several other substances. The ban only applies to the herb ephedra, and not to pharmaceutically-manufactured ephedrine. Ephedra was deemed not safe by the FDA because of the combination of substances occurring naturally (including phenylpropanolamine, also banned by the FDA) and several reported adverse effects; although the FDA took little notice of it until one enterprising type started marketing it mixed with caffeine as "Herbal Ecstasy" during the late 1990s, leading to kids overdosing on it. The herb ephedra may contain wildly varying amounts of ephedrine and the other psychoactive chemicals, making accurate dosing difficult.
Purported diet and bodybuilding pills containing a mix of ephedrine and caffeine have also had many reported adverse effects, from heart palpitations to stroke. Ephedrine and caffeine are both stimulants and multiply the effects of each other.
Ephedrine gained a reputation during the 1980s as legal "trucker speed", following the rise of mandated drug testing for drivers during the Ronald Reagan administration which caused the formerly-widespread use of Benzedrene and other amphetamines to end; this led to its use at decidedly off-label dosages or in conjunction with caffeine.