People on ‘ludes should not drive.– Jeff Spicolli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Quaalude is the brand name of the drug methaqualone and was a prescription drug in the U.S. from 1961 – 1984. I remember as a teenager in the ’80s there being talk all the time of taking ‘ludes and how great they were. Pop culture references to Quaaludes where everywhere, for example David Bowie sang of being “in Quaaludes and red wine.” At their height of popularity in the ’70s, Quaaludes were known as “Disco Biscuits.”
Even though methaqualone was a prescription drug, it was quite easy to get your hands on. According to Justin Gass who authored a book about quaaludes, “doctors were essentially giving them out like candy — it was very easy to obtain Quaaludes in the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s.” There were clinics all over the country that were handing them out in response to the “patient” claiming stress or mild anxiety — it wasn’t even necessary to see a doctor at these clinics.
Quaalude was primarily prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia. It was originally thought that Quaaludes were non-addictive and relatively harmless — neither of which is true. The drug was a central nervous system depressant and caused a drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It produced a gentle and relaxing but powerful high. Taken with alcohol (which was very dangerous) it produced a drunken, sleepy high. It took effect relatively quickly – within 30 minutes – and the effects lasted for about six hours. Unfortunately, methaqualone is addictive and builds up tolerance so that over time you have to take more of the drug to get the same effect. There was a real danger of overdose which could cause kidney failure, liver damage, coma or death. Methaqualone was killing people in their sleep. Mixed with alcohol consumption, the dangers related to Quaaludes increased dramatically.
In response to the widespread abuse and health problems, methaqualone was classified as a Schedule I drug in 1984 which made its production and distribution illegal. U.S. regulators worked with their international counterparts and shut down production of methaqualone worldwide. While quaaludes continued to circulate for years after being rendered illegal, by the late 1980s the drug was out of circulation. Quaaludes are now like the mythical unicorn and there are drug dealers who claim to sell quaaludes but according to Justin Gass, “they are generally nothing more than a combination of different barbiturates which they hope would create the same effect but it certainly does not.”