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Quaaludes: What Happened to This Retro Downer?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 16, 2024

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Quaaludes were a popular household drug in the eighties, and have since begun to fade from conversation in today’s age, however they are still used and can become a source of substance misuse. 

A member of the quinazolinone class of drugs, methaqualone became incredibly popular as a recreational drug. People discovered that if you resisted the strong urge to sleep, you’d experience a very potent high, or rather a low.

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Due to rampant abuse and the high addiction potential of this medication, commercial production of methaqualone stopped in the mid-80s. Usage peaked during the early 70s, so ludes were already fading away by this point.

This blog delves into the history of Quaaludes, exploring their rise and fall as a popular recreational drug. We’ll discuss the reasons behind their ban, the risks associated with misuse, and why it’s crucial to be informed about their lingering presence.

What Are Quaaludes (Methaqualone)?

Quaaludes (also known as Methaqualone) are a synthetic CNS (central nervous system) depressant with barbiturate-like effects.

Quaalude was one brand name used for methaqualone, a hypnotic drug widely prescribed as a sedative and sparked mass drug addiction across western households for its hazy, soothing sedative effect on the human brain.

As well as being sold in the branded forms of Quaalude and Sopor, methaqualone was also sold as a combination drug called Mandrax. This included 250mg methaqualone along with 25mg diphenhydramine.

The active ingredient – methaqualone – is designed to reduce anxiety. This class of drugs are known as anxiolytics. The drug also has a powerful sedative effect leading to very rapid drowsiness.

The drug was first noted in 1955 after being synthesized in India – more on that below – and was patented in the US in 1962 by Wallace and Tiernan.

The tablets have the number 714 emblazoned on them.

Quaalude pills were introduced as a supposedly safe alternative to barbiturates for those experiencing problems with sleep. Just like more recently with the opioid epidemic, these claims about Quaaludes turned out to be hollow. The medication was shown to have strong addiction potential and also triggered similar withdrawal symptoms to barbiturates.

Today, Quaaludes are not commonly found on the streets in the US. 

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Medical Use of Quaaludes

As a sedative, Quaaludes pills (methaqualone) boost the activity of the brain’s GABA receptors and nervous system. The way in which this drug acts is similar to both barbiturates and benzodiazepines. This increase in GABA activity causes blood pressure to fall. It also slows your breathing rate and pulse rate. The deep state of relaxation induced explains why methaqualone was first prescribed for insomnia.

Unfortunately, it became apparent that tolerance quickly builds to the drug, leading to more required to achieve the same effect.

When you take methaqualone in the form of Quaaludes, it will peak in your bloodstream within a few hours. The drug has a half-life of somewhere between 20 and 60 hours.

When methaqualone is used clinically, it comes as a hydrochloride salt. Mandrax was marketed as a freebase form of methaqualone. This combination medication contained diphenhydramine alongside the 250mg dose of methaqualone. The hydrochloride came in capsules, while the freebase methaqualone was manufactured in tablet form.

Now you can see what Quaaludes are and what purpose they serve, what can you expect in terms of side effects? 

Side Effects of Quaaludes

Quaaludes’ effects can be quite intense, as they impact the nervous system, resulting in both hypnotic and sedative effects on both the body and mind. 

Common quaalude effects  include: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Tingling in arms and legs
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Rashes
  • Itching
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Slowed breathing

Occasionally, Quaaludes effects can trigger erectile dysfunction and make it difficult to achieve orgasm.

Higher doses of ludes can cause extreme mental confusion and a loss of muscle control known as ataxia.

As is common with most drugs of abuse – and Quaaludes were widely and heavily abused – users tended to make poor decisions and found their normal abilities impaired under the influence of methaqualone. Car accidents were commonplace with the driving skills of Quaalude users being seriously impaired. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of quaaludes’ effects on the body and mind. Others may occur depending on the individual’s medical and substance use background.  

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Quaaludes: Dosage and Overdose

When methaqualone was available as a legal prescription medication, it was available in both tablet and capsule form as stated.

Methaqualone also came in varying strengths.

Dosages of oral methaqualone ranged from 75 through to 150 mg for light sedation.

If stronger sedation was required, up to 600mg of the drug was used.

As a general benchmark, most users have been prescribed 300mg. 

One of the many problems with methaqualone, as we touched on above, is the way tolerance so rapidly builds. Many unwitting users believed they were taking a safe tablet to help them sleep, but soon ended up gobbling up to 2000mg of methaqualone daily just to get the same effects.

 Methaqualone kicks in after around 30 minutes. The duration of effects is somewhere between 5 and 8 hours depending on the user and their tolerance for the drug.

Quaaludes are CNS depressants like Valium and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate). As such, the risk of overdose is significant, especially when users take higher doses. Methaqualone overdose can cause coma, seizures, and even death.

The Quaaludes you find today are manufactured in illegal laboratories. As such, the strength and contents vary substantially. This increases the risk of overdose and ill-effects still further.

For first-time users of methaqualone, taking over 300mg of the drug can be dangerous. Daily doses of 8000mg can be fatal, although this will depend on the tolerance of the users.

When Quaaludes are taken with alcohol, overdose and death can occur at much lower doses. Alcohol is also a CNS depressant, so luding out on methaqualone and wine – standard practice in the 1970s – saw users magnifying the effects of this drug, sometimes fatally.

Quaaludes’ Effect: A History

Quaaludes were originally synthesized in India in 1951 Syed Husain Zaheer and Indra Kishore Kacker were conducting research in the hope of creating new antimalarial medication.

The drug soon became popular worldwide. By 1965, methaqualone was the most widely prescribed sedative in the UK. Here, it was sold legally under the names Malsedin, Malsed, and Renoval.

Methaqualone first penetrated the US in the 1960s. First manufactured by William H Rorer Inc, the drug was named for the words “quiet interlude.”

By 1972, methaqualone was America’s sixth-best selling sedative under the brand name Quaalude. Recreational use of the drug was also at a high during the late 60s and into the 70s. The drug was often referred to as a disco biscuit. By 1981, the DEA estimated that Quaaludes were second only to marijuana as the most popular recreational drug in the US. At this point, up to 90% of global Quaalude production was for the black market.

As the drug became a fixture on college campuses and a pop culture phenomenon brought to life in songs by Frank Zappa and David Bowie, many musicians like the Rolling Stones developed serious methaqualone habits.

The abuse potential of Quaaludes didn’t go unnoticed. Methaqualone was made a Schedule II drug in 1973, making it hard to prescribe and illegal to possess unless covered by a prescription.

Rorer opted to sell the rights to manufacture Quaaludes in 1978 to the Pennsylvania-based Lemmon Company.

Rorer’s chairman, John Eckman, explained that, despite accounting for less than 2% of the company’s sales, it created 98% of all their problems.

So, the drug was still regarded as an effective sleeping drug, but there was a public image problem for Lemmon. In an attempt to counter this, Lemmon took out ads in medical journals urging physicians not to allow illegal users of a drug to prevent legitimate patients from benefiting from it.

Quaalude Pills Today

Beyond this, Lemmon also manufactured smaller quantities of the drug under a different name (Mequin). This allows doctors to prescribe methaqualone without the negative connotations brought about by ludes.

The rights to Quaalude were discontinued in the US in 1985.

Ultimately, it was a combination of the drug’s strong psychological addictiveness and widespread recreational abuse that led to the downfall of ludes.

By 1985, the drug was moved to Schedule I on the DEA’s list. Schedule I drugs are considered to have no legitimate medical use, a high potential for abuse, and to be lacking in safety even when used under medical supervision.

According to DEA estimates, there were 20 million Quaaludes on the streets of the US in 1980, a number they projected would double within a year.

What happened, though, was the precise opposite, with the problem not only subsiding but being effectively eliminated in a matter of a few short years.

How did the DEA manage to win this war on drugs where all others seem to have roundly failed?

Well, with Quaaludes, this was accomplished by going after the source rather than the end-user. By targeting the manufacturers of methaqualone powder all over the work and inducing them to stop production, the US government worked tirelessly to put a stop to what was becoming a clear and present danger.

At the same time as this aggressive action, doctors started to use alternative treatments for insomnia, in large part due to the enormous stigma generated by Quaaludes.

President Reagan banned the domestic production and sales of Quaaludes in 1984.

Despite this, there are still labs making Quaaludes in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. The drug is also still found in India and South Africa, although under different names.

Quaalude Abuse and Quaalude Dependence

Abusing Quaaludes creates a dependence much as you would experience from barbiturates.

Tolerance quickly builds and more of the drug is needed to get the euphoric effects. This leads to an increased risk of overdose.

Abruptly discontinuing use leads to withdrawal symptoms that include: 

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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