Quaalude (“kway-lewd”) or methaqualone (“meth-uh-kway-loan”), is something most people are only familiar with from movies and the news. It’s back in the spotlight because Bill Cosby, as part of an on-going rape scandal, admitted in a deposition to date raping a woman with them.
The drug is an infamous downer, a powerful one, a highly addictive one, and a dangerous one that for 20 years was willfully ignored by authorities. It was synthesized in the 1950s in India to fight malaria but it was instead found to have powerful sedative-hypnotic and muscle relaxant effects. After a spate of celebrity deaths made barbiturates unmarketable, U.S. companies were looking for a replacement for anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, and muscle relaxants. Despite mounting evidence in Europe and Japan that Quaalude had severe side-effects, in 1966 the FDA approved it as having “no abuse potential.”
A safe sleeping pill, oh my! Around the 1970s, Cosby and Roman Polanski, another famous celebrity rapist, could legally obtain Quaaludes by claiming insomnia. Safe in their knowledge that it wasn’t dangerous, doctors prescribed mountains of it. The public caught on that they were a ton of fun and they became an integral part of disco culture. Discotheque clubs opened up in New York City with no alcohol license. They were “juice bars” and only had virgin cocktails. Everyone knew they were places to take a ‘lude and dance.
There’s nothing today, besides the legal (but worse) analogues like etaqualone and methylmethaqualone, that can deliver the acute sensation that Quaalude delivers. It’s like a punch of calmness, and you then an intense euphoria like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Fioricet 3, a hard-to-get combination of a barbiturate and an opiate, is the closest you can find today.
Quaaludes have a novel mechanism of action different from other downers like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates. All these drugs bind to different locations on the GABA-A receptors in your brain. There they influence the receptor indirectly, in a process called allosteric modulation. Quaaludes bind to a location not shared by any of those drugs. The receptor itself is also made out of 5 subunits, of which there are many variations. Quaaludes interacts with those subunits differently, and these differences are why it has that certain unique feeling unshared by other drugs.
Everything’s great, arousal climbs, skin tingles, and you can’t think straight. It drags your mind down, turns your muscles to jelly, one nickname was “wall-banger”, and eventually you’re asleep. It’s clear as to why predators like Cosby and Polanski chose Quaaludes. The speed and acuteness of the high slams your brain if you’re not ready for it. It rapidly renders you giddy, pliable, suggestible, and soon, in a deep sleep.
It took decades of flagrant abuse, addiction, and hundreds of bodies before the U.S. government finally recognized the danger. Quaalude use rapidly fell off and in 1984 it was finally banned. It remains in limited, mostly illicit production, for South Africa. There it is often blended with an HIV drug that causes vivid dreams to create a chemical cocktail of Quaalude joy leading to a hallucinogenic sleep state. Today, Quaaludes are only rarely available through shadowy online storefronts for disreputable Chinese and Eastern European chemical plants, usually as a powder. The Quaalude train wreck lead to sweeping changes in how pharmaceuticals were tested and approved. A warning of what we could unleash unless we carefully synthesize and test drugs.