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What are Quaaludes, where did Bill Cosby get them, and why aren’t they legal anymore?

AP Photo/Isidoro Pitera
A 30 year old drug epidemic.
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Controversy over the comedian Bill Cosby’s alleged repeated sexual assaults of women have reemerged after the Associated Press surfaced documents showing him admitting in a deposition to obtaining Quaaludes to give them to young women he wanted to have sex with.

But what are Quaaludes? The once massively popular sleep aid, sedative, and heavily abused recreational drug is unfamiliar to millennials and many in generation X, but very familiar to people who lived in urban centers through the 1970s and early 1980s. It has been highly illegal for three decades in the United States, and is almost completely unavailable there today.

Cosby admits to getting seven prescriptions for the drug in the deposition, which must have been before 1984, when the drug was banned nationwide, and put in the same classification for drug enforcement purposes as heroin. Throughout the 1970s, the drug was easily available and widely prescribed by physicians.

Formally, the drug’s name is methaqualone. It was originally synthesized in India in the 1950s as an antimalarial, but was later discovered to have sedative-hypnotic effects.

It was branded Quaaludes (after Maalox, also made by its initial manufacturer, and the phrase “quiet interlude”) in the United States. It first became popular as a sedative and sleeping pill because it was supposedly less addictive than the barbiturates commonly prescribed before it hit the market.

But by the 1970s, it had become massively popular as a recreational drug because it produces an intense, euphoric high after an initial 15-minute drowsy phase. Its illegal use was heavily associated with the disco scene. The DEA estimated in the early 1980s that as much as 90% of the world’s production of the drug went into the illegal drug trade.

Due to its sedative effect and strong interaction with alcohol, it has come up often in sexual assault allegations, including those against the film director Roman Polanski, and now against Cosby.

Abuse, hundreds of deaths from illegal use, and resulting bad publicity saw the one US maker of the drug halt production in 1983. Ronald Reagan signed an outright ban in 1984, making trafficking it far more dangerous.

The drug was still manufactured abroad, and intermittently available. But the DEA actually embarked on a campaign to convince manufacturers around the world to stop making it, and eventually it became nearly impossible to get in the United States.

The drugs that largely replaced Quaaludes as sedatives and sleep aids, benzodiazepines and their near cousins such as Ambien, have become the best-selling type of prescription drug in the world, despite abuse, dependency, and long-term use problems of their own.

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