Methaqualone: a harmful interlude


Methaqualone was one of the most abused prescription drugs worldwide during the 1970s. Thankfully, the world woke up to its destructive capacity.

Methaqualone was first synthesised in India in 1951, where it was originally formulated as an anti-malarial drug. As the drug was out of patent by the 1960s, many companies were selling their own methaqualone preparations for its properties as a strong sedative with rapid onset and long-lasting function. A typical dose of 300 mg would take effect in about 30 minutes and last for 5–8 hours with users reporting a feeling of deep relaxation.

How it works

Methaqualone’s action works on the GABA receptors in the brain and nervous system, increasing their activity leading to depressed breathing and pulse and a feeling of euphoria. Common side effects include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, rashes and sweating. Long-term users develop a strong tolerance, with some reportedly able to take 20,000 mg per day, while new users can accidentally become comatose when taking doses down to 2,000 mg and dead from a dose of 8,000 mg.

In action

In the 1960s, methaqualone, sold as Quaaludes (a wordplay on ‘quiet interlude’) in the USA and Mandrax in the UK and Australia, became a very popular anti-anxiety medication and sedative. In prescribed doses, it promotes relaxation and sleepiness. But lax prescribing practices, and the advent of ‘stress clinics’ which prescribed many strong sedatives freely, led to widespread use of methaqualone as a party drug.

Methaqualone, or ‘disco biscuits’ as it was colloquially known in its tablet or capsule form, was taken widely in nightclubs. David Bowie and Frank Zappa both wrote lyrics referencing their ingestion of the drug.

Methaqualone also gained a reputation for its propensity to make users more open to sexual experimentation, and worse: Bill Cosby infamously admitted to using it as a date rape drug, a crime for which he was jailed in 2018.

The effects of excessive use of methaqualone can be slurred speech, difficulty in motor control, seizures, cardiac and respiratory arrest and ultimately death, especially if the drug is mixed with alcohol. In the recent film The Wolf of Wall Street, the lead character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a methaqualone addict. In one scene, upon taking too large a dose, he crashes his car; his inability to talk or walk is graphically re-enacted.

In action

In the early 1980s, authorities started taking notice of the widespread illicit use of methaqualone. It was made a Schedule I drug in the USA and a Class B drug in the UK, outlawing its legal production or sale.


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