Methaqualone was legal from 1961 – 1984. The bootleg period existed from 1984 – 1988. Then it just disappeared. The drug name “Quaalude” combined the words “quiet” and “interlude.” Quaaludes today are as mythical as a unicorn but the truth is, they did once exist. The story of Quaaludes is quite interesting too. It molds how the DEA and medical industry control substances today.
The Interesting History of Quaaludes
It was in the 1950s that a lab in India synthesized Methaqualone. It was originally found to fight malaria and was also recognized to be a sedative. Germany and Japan were the first big markets. Over the period of legalization of the drug in these countries, there was a lot of abuse and addiction. Not until 1962 was it patented as a sedative in Britain and branded with the name Mandrax. In the 1970s, the medical industry in the UK began to prescribe it as a sleeping aid.
The Quaalude high was relaxing and gentle. It was also very easy to get your hands on. Teenagers would “lude out”. This was a combination of drinking alcohol and taking Quaaludes. They would experience a drunken, sleepy high. Overdose was common and lead to delirium, kidney failure, liver damage, coma, and possibly death.
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When Methaqualone hit the U.S.
By the time it reached the US in the 1960s, it was being used to treat insomnia and anxiety. However, it didn’t take long for the drug’s potent features to be misused.
A study from 1961 stated that Methaqualone was effective in treating depression. They compared it to a similar success rate of electric shock therapy. The study states that Quaalude dosage occasionally needed to be increased to continue working. Today, that’s our version of tolerance and it’s a sign of drug addiction.
Juice bars were something set up in Manhattan. Non-alcoholic drinks were served. These bars catered to people who wanted to dance on methaqualone. The stamp ‘714’ was the signature stamp for the ‘disco biscuit.’ That was the number you would find on Quaaludes. Keep in mind, this was a prescription drug that was legal at the time.
The Popularity of the Brand Quaaludes
Quaaludes were the main brand with the active ingredient being Methaqualone.
There were plenty of different sleeping pills in the 1970s but Quaaludes had the highest abuse rate. This unpatented drug has been illegal for the past 30 years. It taught authorities and the medical industry a lot. You can pretty much thank Quaaludes for the restrictions on today’s addictive prescription drugs.
While there were plenty of sleeping pills people had access to, Quaaludes reigned supreme. Just as quickly, it became illegal, and pretty quickly, obsolete.
What Were Quaaludes Prescribed for?
Methaqualone is a central nervous system depressant that increases GABA receptors activity. It acts as a sedative and a hypnotic. Hypnotics help a person sleep and that was the main reason someone would be prescribed Quaaludes.
When GABA increases, a person’s breathing and pulse rates slow down. Blood pressure and heart rate drop too. This causes a feeling of deep relaxation. Methaqualone peaks in the bloodstream within a few hours and stays in your system for 20-60 hours. There was danger or tolerance so people would have to take higher Quaalude dosages as time went on. This was putting insomniacs in danger of never waking up.
Why Were Quaaludes so Popular?
During the 1950s and 1960s, sedatives were really popular. The market was ready for something like Quaaludes. The barbiturates of the 1950s were stigmatized as problematic. Newer sedatives like Valium were introduced. Claims that these new drugs were different got people trusting the pharmaceutical companies again.
This is when Quaaludes entered the scene. They were unpatented so any company could produce methaqualone. Quaaludes was the brand that everyone related to, however. It was marketed as a barbiturate substitute in the early 1960s.
If you’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie accurately offers a journey into the 1970s. You can see the state of people and how Quaaludes fit in. Even people that didn’t enjoy partying or getting high were trying Quaaludes. In retrospect, reporters and onlookers believe it was the perfect storm. There was little regulation on any of the sleeping pills with a high interest in taking them. So why did Quaaludes come out on top?
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The Frequency of Quaalude Prescriptions Being Given
Quaaludes reached epic proportions because of the medical industry. It was so frequently prescribed to patients. Patients who felt stressed or couldn’t sleep would be prescribed Quaaludes. In 1972, they were considered the most prescribed sedative given.
The marketing of Quaaludes also had something to do with it. There were no barriers to get it. You could just go to a clinic and pick it up. There was no stigma or judgment. Nobody realized that it could cause such damage. It was being marketed as a non-addictive sedative. Many would get addicted without recognizing it.
Thanks to Quaaludes, there are many precautions we take now. We watch out for addiction in our loved ones. For example, there are addiction quizzes available online. It’s partly due to a drug most of us will never experience that we are more aware of prescription drug addiction.
Why Methaqualone Went from a Legal Prescription Drug to Illicit
The DEA and ruling parties changed this prescription drug to an illicit drug. Quaaludes became so widespread, there was no control. It was causing accidents, overdoses, and major addiction.
Methaqualone is a potent quinazoline. It’s a class of sedative-hypnotics that are known for their potential for abuse. This drug was literally killing people in their sleep, even if they were taking the recommended dosage.
Methaqualone became tightly regulated in Britain in 1971. The U.S. followed suit in 1973. By the beginning of the 1980s, it was withdrawn from developed markets. This included the U.S. and in 1982, they made Methaqualone a Schedule I drug. Illegal to make and illegal to buy/sell.
While it was certainly doing its job helping people relax and fall asleep, it became a danger to the public. With so many people enjoying the feeling they got from Quaaludes, something had to be done. Prescription drug abuse has begun to run ramped.
The DEA Intervention of Quaaludes in the U.S.
The original liberal disbursement of Quaaludes is what caused it to become illegal. Too many people had become dependent on it. It was so dangerous and so accessible. The medical system was making money from it. The epidemic was put to a stop by the DEA, who believed that Quaaludes were causing more harm than good.
Gene Haislip was the former head of the Chemical Control Division of the DEA. He was quoted as saying, “we beat em.”
The problem was eliminated because the DEA worked with governments and manufacturers around the world to stop production. The meth addiction epidemic in the U.S. eluded Haislip sadly. While the DEA tried similar means to stop meth, it didn’t have the same positive effect.
Methaqualone and Widespread Abuse in the U.S
No other prescription drug had ever been so easy to get your hands on. It was a recreational drug that was highly abused. Justin Gass wrote a book on Quaaludes. He had this to say,
“Doctors were essentially giving them out like candy. It was very easy to obtain Quaaludes in the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s.”
He goes on to say that people were able to purchase Quaaludes in a semi-legal clinic better known as “stress clinics.” There was no need to even see a doctor. You didn’t need to have trouble sleeping or have anxiety. People were being handed the maximum legal prescription every time they went to their doctor.
Here are some other facts on the problem methaqualone caused in the U.S.:
- First-time users were in danger of overdose. The prescriptions were 300 mg doses. Drug effects varied based on a person’s tolerance. Some might take 20,000 mg per day. Others might die from taking 8,000 mg in a day.
- The inconsistency is what caused it to be so dangerous. Death could result when a lower dose was taken while also consuming alcohol.
- Many people became addicted. It became a societal issue in the U.S. after being linked to so many overdoses, injuries, and accidents.
Clinics like what was seen in the 1970s and 1908’s don’t exist anymore. Their tactics in the 1970s caused the downfall of pseudo-medical centers. By 1972, control of Quaalude use and dispensary was being tightened. These clinics were a major reason that Quaalude abuse was so prevalent in the U.S.
What Quaaludes Taught the U.S. About Addiction and Drug Abuse
When Methaqualone was available legally, the FDA hadn’t begun testing abuse and addiction potential. The owner of the pharmaceutical brand of methaqualone didn’t test it either. It was originally synthesized in India back in 1951. When it came to the U.S. a decade later, there were no questions asked.
It was manufactured, the DEA classified it, and it was prescribed by doctors and quazi-clinics. The advertising of Methaqualone only stated that it was a non-barbiturate. At the time, stating it wasn’t a barbiturate was the same as saying it’s non-addictive. At the height of Quaaludes administering, it was believed to be non-addictive.
It was your everyday ordinary prescription drug for just over a decade. The abuse of Methaqualone had become an epidemic and couldn’t be ignored any longer. Medical journals and newspapers reported widespread problems. Congress convened hearings. In just one year, the DEA had changed the category of a controlled substance. In 1983, Congress passed a special act at the time. It moved Quaalude to Schedule I which made it illegal. This meant production and distribution became illegal.
There was the matter of the illicit market for Quaaludes, however. Even when Quaaludes became illegal, it was still easy to obtain. If you’ve ever heard of Dr. Feelgoods, it related to larger-scale prescription mill chains. People were stealing the drugs from the manufacturer’s facilities and selling it on the streets. It made it more challenging for regulators to stop the Methaqualone abuse.
So what did the DEA do?
They ensured that domestic production quotes were lowered every year. By 1981, the production quota had gone down to zero. That was the year the last manufacturer stopped making methaqualone. The DEA put a lot of effort into using their diplomatic pull to shut down production worldwide. This was highly effective. The drug disappeared in the middle of the 1980s.
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How did they Beat the Quaalude Abuse Epidemic?
The DEA and Congress took quick action. As soon as they realized there was a problem with Quaaludes, they made changes. Many prescription drugs that have become problematic are abused for decades. Quaaludes saw eight years of legal sales. Compare this to stories of OxyContin and manipulation of pharmaceutical companies.
The public had experienced a lot of drug panics from barbiturates, amphetamines, and synthetic narcotics. Political figures didn’t have to convince people that drug control was necessary.
Perhaps another piece of the puzzle is that anti-Quaalude demonstrators attacked the right people. It was manufacturers and prescribers that were being demonized, not the users. Street pushers and junkies were not a scare tactic back then. Dirty doctors and pharmaceutical companies were the ones being blamed. This is where the regulatory hammer fell.
The peak of abuse linked Quaaludes to overdose, suicide attempts, injuries, and car accidents. Quaalude use was just behind marijuana when it came to usage. Stress clinics that charged a high amount for Quaaludes kept people high for a while. Back in 1980, the DEA believed there were 20 million pills on the street. It matches the popularity of heroin at the time. Yet, the DEA managed to get the Quaalude abuse under control. By 1984, it had vanished.
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NCBI, PubMed Journals (April, 2005) Treatment for Methaqualone Dependence in Adults. Retrieved from,