The United States is currently in the middle of an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose. However, this is not the only drug epidemic the country has ever seen. In the 1960s and 70s, a different drug was widely used by teens and young adults across America. So much so, that studies were performed in the 70s to measure the drug’s pandemic reach. Methaqualone, or Quaaludes, were once sold over-the-counter but its effects lent itself to abuse by club cultures.
The drug may only bring to mind Leonardo DiCaprio’s drug-induced crawl in the “Wolf of Wall Street,” but at one time Quaalude effects gained a reputation for a euphoric high and became known as a “love drug”. But what are the effects of quaaludes and where is it today?
What are Quaaludes?
Quaalude was the American brand name for methaqualone, also formerly sold under the name Mandrax in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Methaqualone is a depressant that lowers pulse, breathing, and blood pressure to induce a state of relaxation. For that reason, Quaaludes were often prescribed as an insomnia remedy, promising to give users a restful night sleep.
The drug was originally synthesized as an antimalarial drug in India in 1951, in order to fight malaria. However, by 1965, it was more commonly sold as a sedative under the names Renoval, Malsedin, or Malsed. That same year the Mandrax formula was released, including antihistamine properties (to help with allergy or cold symptoms). By the 70s, it became a top-selling sedative and sleep-aid in the US.
Its reputation as a club drug started as a response to its relaxation effects. It was known to release inhibitions, making it an effective “social lubricant” in clubs and discos. So much so that it earned the name “disco biscuit” in the US.
In low doses, Quaalude effects are mild, with only a light sense of sleepiness and relaxed sedation. However, in higher doses, the drug has a more potent effect including deeper sedative effects and euphoria. In order to experience the deeper Quaalude effects, users often resist the urge to go to sleep. Users that managed to stay awake after a heavy dose, would achieve a dissociative high.
Quaaludes affect brain chemistry by altering neurotransmitters like most drugs. Though its physical effects, like a lower heart rate and blood pressure, make you feel more relaxed, its manipulation of neurotransmitters is what gives users the euphoric feeling.
The drug is a downer, meaning that is blocks our excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain that make you feel awake and energized. Inhibitory neurotransmitters are boosted and this calms you down. In extreme doses, you may be “calmed” to the point of losing motor functions and the ability to form words, all while fighting the urge to sleep.
Quaaludes also gained a reputation as a “love drug”. Excitatory neurotransmitters are fired when you feel nervous or when you are on guard. Downers like alcohol and methaqualone help ease nerves in social situations but they also block them when a situation you would normally avoid is presented.
The relaxed nature of these effects makes the drug a popular choice for party-goers looking to release their inhibitions. However, it started to be known for its ability to release sexual limits. It became a drug of choice in the entertainment industry and in the club scene.
In 2015, a deposition from 2005 was released in which Bill Cosby, the comedian accused of multiple sexual abuse cases, admitted to legally acquiring Quaaludes from a doctor with the intention of giving them to women he wanted to sleep with. Some say Cosby’s open admission is indicative of the widespread use of Quaaludes as a means to loosen sexual boundaries.
Quaalude Risks and Overdose Potential
Contrary to what drug companies said in the 60s and 70s, Quaaludes can be lethal even at doses that were commonly prescribed. At or above 300 mg, Quaalude effects can cause heart complications or coma in first-time users. The lethal dose is largely dependant on tolerance, while 300 mg can be lethal to some, an experienced user may be able to take 6,000 mg and survive.
Even in the early 70s, studies and medical papers were being published linking methaqualone to chemical dependency and powerful withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to those of alcohol and barbiturates and include:
Seizures make methaqualone a particularly dangerous drug to detox from on your own and usually requires the help of medical professionals to mitigate damage.
As users build up tolerance and dependency, their dosage and frequency of use go up. While under the influence of Quaalude effects, users are more likely to have accidents or heart-related medical emergencies.
Overdose can occur with cardiac arrest, violent seizures, or stroke. When alcohol is mixed with methaqualone, the lethal dose of the drug is lowered. Stories in the 60s and 70s circulated in which users would lay down to sleep and never wake up when their nervous system shut down, they slipped into a coma and died.
Quaaludes Decline in the US
The recreational use and abuse of the drug lead to heavier regulations and public outcry against Quaaludes. Since recreational users commonly used the brand name “Quaalude” instead of the generic term “methaqualone,” sales dropped. John Eckman, chairman of William H. Rorer Inc., the company that sold the drug said, “Quaalude accounted for less than 2% of our sales but created 98% of our headaches.”
Rorer and Lemmon (a company Rorer sold the rights to sell Quaalude) continued to campaign to doctors, urging them not to prescribe the drug and not let Quaalude abusers get in the way of patients taking advantage of its positive effects. Despite pharmaceutical marketing efforts, the drug was discontinued in 1985.
Quaaludes are all but gone in the US, with no legal production in the US or Canada. Underground production still exists in Mexico, South America, and overseas. However, unlike other imported illicit drugs, methaqualone is not coming over the border in significant amounts. US Customs and Border patrol may only seize one or two illegal imports per year, if any at all.
In the 90s, Quaaludes supposedly continued to circulate in recreational drug-using circles and in the club scene. However, when seized and analyzed, pills were often fakes, containing only benzodiazepines and no methaqualone. Some fakes even bore the Lemmon 714 marking that was on the genuine articles.
Global Use of Quaaludes
Though Quaaludes no longer pose much of a threat to the US they are still illegally produced overseas. It remains one of the most widely used drugs in South Africa. It is also believed that methaqualone is one of the illicit drugs, besides powerful amphetamines, that is funding conflict in the middle east through black market sales, including the Syrian civil war.
Treatment for Downer and Barbiturate Addiction
Though Quaaludes are rare in the United States today, they have similar addictive properties to other downers like barbiturates. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction call Drug Treatment Center Finder at 855-619-8070 to find out what you can do to start your recovery.