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Quaalude: The one that didn’t get away?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I was talking to a 67-year old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself—she’s a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said “Now that was a good drug.” It was the only drug she’d tried, she said, and she’d only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here’s the thing: more drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn’t have used more drugs like that, because she didn’t. And this makes sense: for all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn’t use it for the same reason she didn’t use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don’t want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren’t required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude—her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a “good drug” that she would have done more of—struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, “Quaalude” has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a “retro” drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be “retro.” Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and “Quaalude ring” busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network’s reports. According to the 2003-2004 SAMHSA survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude’s days as hot item among drug users is long past. Yet if you use Google’s Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to “methaqualone” (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That’s pretty much what you’d expect. But if you search for “Quaalude” you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We’re talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it’s further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

So: is this what drug-war success looks like? That rarity of rarities where authorities actually stopped a drug on the time-honored path from miracle medicine to street scourge, and sidetracked it into some relatively harmless “retro” arena where it is bothersome only as a cultural cliché? The folks at Frontline think so, and argue that if the same tactics used against Quaalude had been used against methamphetamine, a global speed epidemic might have been averted.

What were those tactics?

Quaalude was the trade name for William H. Rorer Pharmaceutical’s brand of methaqualone, a substance first synthesized by Indian researchers in 1951. Unprotected by patent, pharmaceutical companies brought the sedative to Europe and Japan by the early 1960s, and Rorer introduced it to America in 1965. The FDA did not yet require testing for addiction potential, and Rorer did not volunteer any testing itself, preferring to advertise the drug as a non-barbiturate with no record of addiction. Sales were healthy enough that soon Rorer got competition from Arnar-Stone’s Sopor and Parke Davis’s Parest.

Quaalude remained an ordinary prescription-only drug until 1972, when abuse had grown prevalent enough to justify a small but classic drug panic. Medical journals and newspapers reported an “epidemic,” Congress convened hearings, and by the end of 1973 methaqualone was a Schedule II Controlled Substance with domestic production quotas being aggressively lowered each year by the DEA.

An illicit market for Quaalude had been established, however, and it continued to be fed by diversions from the licit supply chain: thefts from factories and warehouses, prescriptions from “Dr. Feelgoods” and larger-scale “scrip mill” chains, etc. So regulators stepped even harder on the brakes. The DEA lowered the domestic production quota all the way to zero in 1981 when the last American manufacturer stopped making it; Congress took the unusual step of passing a special act that moved Quaalude to Schedule I in 1983; and the DEA undertook an energetic diplomatic effort to shut down methaqualone production in other countries. By the mid-1980s the drug was mostly gone.

By all accounts Quaalude was a very enjoyable drug. It had a (largely undeserved) reputation as unusually safe, medical-sanctioned, and fun, which helped straight arrows like my relative feel it was acceptable to try it. And it was cool and sexy—the “love drug,” remember! It seemed like a drug with a future, already a good way down the well-trodden path from the medicine cabinet to an enduring niche on the street.

But then it wasn’t. Even after more than a decade of none-too-restricted use, drug authorities were mostly able to stamp it out.

The tools they used to do this are worth noting. For one thing, they acted relatively early: rather than giving pharmaceutical companies decades of free reign to establish both licit and illicit markets, they intervened a mere 8 years after Quaalude went on sale. (Of course, given the abuse record already amassed in Europe and Japan before 1965 they might have acted even sooner, but in the context of U.S. drug history this was lightning-fast.) Timing partly explains the quick reaction: public attention to prescription drug abuse had already been growing in the 1960s thanks to a parade of drug panics surrounding barbiturates, amphetamines, and a variety of synthetic narcotics. By the time Quaalude hit the market, these panics had already helped muster the political will necessary to impose new drug controls despite fierce industry and professional resistance.

Then too, anti-Quaalude warriors spent their energies regulating manufacturers and prescribers rather than demonizing users. Because Quaalude was perceived (incorrectly, but not without a grain of truth) as a college-student drug, and because trafficking was so closely linked to licit supply chains, the usual drug-panic bogeymen—street pushers, vicious junkies, etc.—made few appearances in the scare culture. Instead Quaalude users typically appeared as victims or at least foolish innocents snookered by clever and unscrupulous marketing. The bad guys were pharmaceutical companies and dirty docs, and that’s where the regulatory hammer fell.

In the end Quaalude was a drug whose timeline perfectly matched the drug-experimentation years of the baby boomers. It appeared when they were young and disappeared when they grew up, giving them generational ownership. Its disappearance also limited the health consequences that would have come with truly mass use, and the political harms that come from harsh and divisive anti-drug crusades. The result? A drug that could be remembered with fondness, even nostalgia—a “retro” drug.


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