Lude Awakening: The Rise & Fall of Quaaludes
Boogie down 🕺with the wild tale of Quaaludes — the disco darling of the ’70s that burned bright and fizzled fast
Quaaludes (pronounced kway-loodz) have been at the center of some seriously controversial stories over the years. They first came onto the scene in the 1960s as a prescription sleeping aid and anxiety treatment.
The interesting effects of quaaludes presented themselves if you could fight off the urge to sleep. If you did, you'd be rewarded with a euphoric and hallucinatory high unlike anything else.
Once word got out of quaaludes' psychoactive effects — which caused people to experience loosened inhibitions and made sex feel like you died and entered paradise — it quickly became the party drug of choice during the disco era.
Its widespread abuse as a recreational drug led to its eventual ban in the United States in 1984 under then-president Ronald Regan. The rest of the world followed suit, and quaaludes remain universally banned to this day.
Of course, there's a much darker side to the story of Quaaludes, or "disco biscuits," from its use as a date-rape drug — recently brought back into the conversation in light of the Bill Cosby trial — and its use as a chemical weapon in South Africa during the apartheid.
Don't sleep on the wild history of the rise and fall of Quaaludes.
The Rise & Fall of Quaaludes
Quaaludes is the brand name, like "Kleenex" or "Band-Aid," for a drug called methaqualone.
This drug was first synthesized in 1951 by Indra Kishore Kacker and Syed Hysais Zaheer while working for the pharmaceutical company, Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL). At the time, they were attempting to create new drugs to treat malaria.
Methaqualone didn't do anything for malaria — but its sedative and anxiolytic properties were marketable. It became available with a doctor's prescription under the name Quaalude, sold by William H. Rorer Inc. in the United States in 1965.
If you lived in the United Kingdom, it was sold as Malsed, Malsedin, Renoval, or Mandrax in the rest of Europe.
Back in the day, Quaaludes came in the form of oral tablets advertised to anxious housewives, overworked husbands, and stressed-out students as the answer to a good night's sleep. By 1972, it was the most prescribed sedative in the United States — but not because of its advertised effects.
The real reason for Quaalude's popularity was that people quickly realized that if you pushed past the urge to sleep, it produced intense feelings of euphoria, deep body relaxation, and disinhibition similar to alcohol but without a hangover.
These effects made Quaaludes the drug of choice in the disco scene, where they were called "disco biscuits."
Other names for Quaaludes:
The Rise of a New Party Drug
At first, Quaaludes were considered a much safer alternative to barbituates, having fewer side effects and less potential for abuse. Because of this, doctors were encouraged to prescribe methaqualone, and extensive advertising campaigns projected the drug's impressive safety profile.
Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell used to stock Quaaludes and gave them out to his favorite celebrities as welcome party favors. One notorious incident involved a 30-person street orgy outside a club. Large quantities of Quaaludes were reportedly involved.
The Dark Side of Quaaludes' Reputation
The reputation of Quaaludes took a dark turn when they were exploited as a date rape drug. It worked by partially sedating victims and significantly reducing their inhibitions.
Tragically, in the wrong hands, Quaaludes became a nightmare for many victims, who became sedated and vulnerable but remained conscious enough to be unable to resist their abuser or call for help. This misuse of Quaaludes highlighted the urgent need for stricter regulations on their distribution and use.
Holly Madison's memoir, Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny (2015), caused a stir when she described Hugh Hefner's use of Quaaludes and accused Hefner of manipulating her to advance her career.
According to Madison, Hefner would offer Quaaludes to his bunnies, which he called "thigh openers," to encourage sexual activity at the Playboy Mansion. Madison claims she never took the drug herself but knew many of her fellow bunnies who did.
More recently brought to light were the nefarious affairs of Bill Cosby when 60 women accused Cosby of rape.
Cosby admitted in his 2005 deposition that he gave Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with.
The Fall of Quaaludes
Several factors led to the fall of methaqualone, but the biggest reason was its widespread abuse in the 1970s.
When it first hit the market, Quaaludes were advertised as a safer and non-addictive alternative to benzodiazepines — which the world would later find out wasn't the case.
Even though doctors were prescribing the drug for legitimate purposes, many people were using it recreationally instead. This led to a dramatic uptick in addiction, overdoses, and motor vehicle accidents related to methaqualone abuse.
In the 1970s, the FDA called for stricter labeling of methaqualone to stipulate its potential for dependence.
In the following years, there was a huge push for methaqualone to be moved to Schedule II because of its widespread non-medical consumption.
Wiliam H. Rorer Inc., the pharmaceutical company that sold Quaaludes, tried to prevent this and pushed for Schedule III, a less restricted category, but failed.
Quaaludes were officially placed in the Schedule I category in the United States in 1984. The UN later followed suit by placing the drug in the Schedule II category of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
The change in the drug's legal status heavily impacted how frequently doctors could prescribe the drug. But of course, the supply and demand of ludes didn't go away for several years.
According to Rorer's chairman, Jack Eckman, the drug accounted for less than "2 % of their sales but 98% of their headaches."
For this reason, Rorer sold the rights to make Quaaludes to the firm Lemmon — and Lemmon 714 methaqualone — AKA "Lemons" or "Lemon 7s," as it was known on the street — was born. This shift in drug manufacturing didn't help its reputation as a recreational party drug.
The rise of stress clinics and scrip doctors (short for "prescription doctors") would perpetuate the country's addiction, as they'd often prescribed medications without legitimate medical reasons.
Government crackdowns and negative media coverage led to a decline in pharmaceutical sales, as doctors were less inclined to prescribe the drug due to its negative connotations, and the general public started to fear it.
Pharmaceutical production of Quaaludes ended in 1983, and the following year, it would become a Schedule I drug, preventing any further medical use.
The United States and other government authorities cracked down on the remaining supplies of Quaaludes with Operation Hammerhead in the early 80s, which was a 2-year investigation resulting in 57 indictments of a large smuggling ring.
The result of Operation Hammerhead made it extremely difficult to find illicit counterfeit Quaalude tablets on the street in most parts of the world.
However, this wasn't the case in the late 80s and early 90s in South Africa.
Death & Methaqualone In South Africa
During the apartheid, the South African government approved a highly classified chemical and biological weapons program called Project Coast.
At the center of this program was methaqualone, which was used as a non-lethal riot control chemical. Project Coast was led by Dr. Wouter Basson, who would later come to earn the nickname "Dr. Death."
The intention was to create agents that could be used to suppress an uprising. It was used against the country's black population.
Under Basson's direction, methaqualone was manufactured in enormous quantities and prepared as fine dust for crowd control.
Even more sinister was that Basson planned for any excess methaqualone to be distributed in low-income and black communities via street vendors with the intent to subdue and destroy as many lives as possible.
Basson was imprisoned and faced 67 charges, including 229 murders, drug trafficking, and possession. However, he was ultimately acquitted. The consequences of his actions continue to wreak havoc in South Africa today.
Unlike the party pills used in disco nightclubs, methaqualone use in South Africa looked quite different.
The most popular way to consume methaqualone in South Africa was to crush the pill into a powder and sprinkle it on some weed — this was known as "buttons" — which resulted in immediate and more intense effects. This practice eventually evolved into a bottleneck or "white pipe" where users would smoke the mixture of weed and methaqualone through the neck of a broken glass bottle.
Mandrax, which was the prescription brand of methaqualone in South Africa, did become illegal. However, the South African government had difficulty eradicating the drug from the black market, and the problem still exists today.
How Do Quaaludes Work?
Methaqualone, or 2-methyl-3-(2-methylphenyl)-4(3H)-quinazolinone, belongs to a class of organic compounds called quinazolinone.
These chemicals are a big deal in medicinal chemistry as they exhibit a broad range of biological functions ranging from antibacterial, anticancer, antiviral, and central nervous system activity.
Methaqualone, in particular, is a central nervous system depressant, slowing down the activity of the brain and spinal cord, which is why it has sedative-hypnotic qualities.
Ludes and other common sedatives (like benzodiazepines and barbituates) increase the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain, which is responsible for slowing down central nervous system activity, causing muscle relaxation and reduced anxiousness.
Other popular drugs also use the GABAergic pathway to cause sedation and a unique state of intoxication — including alcohol, GHB, and phenibut.
What Do Quaaludes Feel Like?
As a party drug, there were a lot of misconceptions about the effects of Quaaludes.
For example, one of the reasons it was popular was its rumored aphrodisiac effects that made sex feel out of this world.
However, in reality, Quaaludes merely loosen one's inhibitions — this simply makes people more likely to have sex with people they may otherwise turn away from. This isn't because libido increased; rather, the mechanisms normally in place that apply logic and emotion to stop a potentially harmful or unwanted sexual encounter are temporarily offline.
This disinhibition, along with the sedative and uniquely intoxicating effects of Quaaludes, comes from their ability to potentiate (make stronger) GABA.
"Luding out" was a slang term used in the 1970s to describe the effects of abusing Quaaludes.
When a person "luded out," it typically meant taking a high dose of Quaaludes where the user experienced a range of physical and psychological effects, including:
Intense relaxation and sedation — making it difficult for the user to stay awake.
Impaired coordination — causing users to stumble around.
Feelings of intense pleasure and euphoria — which made it a "love drug."
Slowed or slurred speech — this was due to impaired cognitive and physical functions.
Reduced inhibition and impaired judgment — leading to users taking riskier behaviors such as mixing drugs, going home with a complete stranger, or getting behind the wheel of a car.
One of the reasons people enjoyed Quaaludes as a party drug was the fact that they didn't cause a hangover the next day, unlike many other party drugs and alcohol.
This quality made it easier for users to function normally the day after taking the drug. It was especially appealing for those who had to work or return to their responsibilities after a wild night out.
Among the positive effects of methaqualone include:
Feelings of calmness & relaxation
Positive sexual experiences
Relief from muscle tension
Some of the negative effects of methaqualone include:
Motor control impairment
Nausea and vomiting
Reduced heart rate and blood pressure
Modern Designer Benzoes Have Largely Replaced Quaaludes
Today, Quaaludes have largely vanished from the recreational drug landscape, but the void they left has been filled instead by a surge in designer benzodiazepines (DBZDs).
These substances have taken over the sedative-hypnotic recreational market and offer similar levels of sedation, euphoria, and disinhibition as their Quaalude predecessors. While the effects are distinct, they serve a similar purpose for partygoers looking for a cost-effective downer to use near the end of the night or to cut some of the negative effects of stimulants like MDMA, cocaine, or methamphetamine.
Of course, benzodiazepines carry similar risks to Quaaludes — they're highly addictive and can dramatically increase the chances of overdosing on other sedative drugs (especially alcohol, GHB, and opiates).
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs & Drug Abuse (EMCDDA), the most common designer benzodiazepine drugs used today are etizolam, diclazepam, flubromazolan, phenazepam, pyrazolam.
Other common DBZDs include bromazolam, clonazolam, diclazepam, flualprazolam, fluclotizolam, flunitrazolam, flubromazepam, flubrotizolam, pyrazolam, and meclonazepam.
There are hundreds of other benzodiazepines and related sedative hypnotics — which we'll explore in one of our upcoming posts on designer drugs.
Help Us Grow 🌱
Tripsitter was built by a community of psychedelic advocates — but it's people like you that allow us to thrive.