Pill Pushing©

The Best of Pill Pushing - Quaaludes - (4/19/2017)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The drug: Quaalude (Methaqualone)

The culture at that time: The Sixties and Seventies – Woodstock, Hair, and The Beatles. Peyote buttons, free love, and trips on LSD. Paisley headbands, bell bottoms, and campus streakers. Pot, “The Pill”, and peace signs. Hippies, Watergate, and Kent State. The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Morally, we never got any lower morally. Psychedelically, we never got any higher. The euphoria seekers of the time embraced both naturally-occurring substances, such as marijuana and mescaline, with the so-called “tried and true” pharmaceuticals, such as black beauties and goofballs. It was a “smoke it, swallow it, shoot it up” culture. 

The counterculture of drugs had a great impact on music of the 1960s.  The psychedelic era influenced both the sound and lyrical content of music, which consequently shaped the future of rock music. Flip through your stack of 45s and you will recall that many musicians experimented with drugs, which subsequently influenced their music. For good or for bad, psychedelic music was a trademark of the 1960s – even spilling into the 1970s before disco took over. Not only were musicians sampling as many different drugs as they could, but also many fans were using while absorbing their music to replicate and enhance the mind-altering experiences of hallucinogenic drugs. Try to imagine a Grateful Dead concert without the audience stoned while grooving to their sounds. 

One of the most influential, commercially successful, and critically acclaimed bands of the Sixties was The Beatles. Their career has been intricately linked with drugs, from their early pre-fame days on Benzedrine to the psychedelic era of LSD. Initially, in 1961, they were introduced to uppers to keep them awake through lengthy shows. By 1964, Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to pot which had a significant effect on their music, making it more mellow and contemplative. Listen to Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, We Can Work It Out, Paperback Writer and others on their albums of the time to see how they transformed from R&B to softer, more melodious tunes. They also had the tendency of being high on set and during performances which caused them to forget their lines.  Within the next few years, they redirected their drug obsessions to LSD which had a profound effect on their songwriting and recording.  Many believed that the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, “…hailed as serious art for its “concept” and its range of styles and sounds, a lexicon of pop and electronic noises” [Wenner).  Others questioned whether the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was named after their countless trips on the drug. However, the group denied this.

Another ‘60s band that’s music was influenced by drugs was Pink Floyd; however, the real source of their drug problem came from founding member, Syd Barrett. Syd Barrett developed schizophrenia because of his substantial use of LSD.  Gigs were missed and he proved to be a liability to the band, which was made eternally famous for 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, an immediate success and was on the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart for 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988. 

The drug in question: In 1965, methaqualone was introduced to the market as non-barbiturate, non-addictive sedative, an alternative to barbiturates [Angelos & Meyers, 1985]. The US Federal Register of 1966 listed it as an approved sedative-hypnotic with trade name Quaalude [Federal Register, 1966]. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) deemed it a Schedule V, a ranking that essentially placed no restrictions on the clinical use of a prescription drug [Falco, 1976]. 

Often prescribed to nervous housewives, the Quaalude was something between a sleeping pill and a sedative. First synthesized in the late fifties, by 1965 ’ludes were being manufactured by William H. Rorer Inc., a Pennsylvania pharmaceutical company. Remarked Angela Serratore in her 2014 The Paris Review article “Free of one’s melancholy self,” the name “quaalude” is both a play on “Maalox,” another product manufactured by Rorer, and a blend of the phrase “quiet interlude”—a concept so simple: Just whisper “quiet interlude” to yourself a few times. 

The good, the bad and the ugly: On the timeline of 20th-century pharmaceuticals, methaqualone is placed after barbiturates and before the benzodiazepines. The problem with barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, is that not only were they used widely as anxiolytics and hypnotics, but they also had a high abuse potential and a narrow therapeutic–to–toxic range. They interacted dangerously with other drugs, notably alcohol, the combination of which results in convulsions, coma, respiratory depression and death. Notables such as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, The Singing Nun, Jimi Hendrix and others all died of barbiturate overdose. But the segue into methaqualone – as well as other now extinct non-barbiturate “safe” sedatives and hypnotics such as ethchlorvynol (Placidyl) and glutethimide (Doriden) – were not as much of an advance in pharmacology as had been hoped. 

Impact of drug on culture: Not long after its introduction, “ludes” became the drug of choice for recreational drug users, on par with heroin and cocaine. Users would combine the drug with alcohol to achieve a drunken, sleepy high. Overuse could result in respiratory arrest, delirium, kidney and/or liver damage, coma, and death. As the abuse reached its peak, it was linked to overdoses, suicide attempts, injuries, and car accidents. Comedian Freddie Prinze (Chico and the Man) was high on Quaalude when he shot himself to death in 1997. 

The supply of Quaaludes came from legitimately-manufactured pills diverted into the illegal drug trade, from counterfeit pills from South America, and from illegal labs within the United States [PBS, 2006]. By 1981, the DEA ranked Quaalude use second only to marijuana and estimated that as much as 90% of the world’s production of the agent went into the illegal drug trade. Stress clinics, where customers paid about $100 for a Quaalude prescription from a licensed physician, became popular in urban areas. The DEA estimated that the 20 million pills on the street in 1980 would double in just a year and match heroin's popularity. Yet, within a few years, the DEA got the problem of Quaalude abuse under control. The manufacturer ceased making the drug in 1983, and by 1984 Ronald Reagan had signed into law a ban on the production and sale of prescription Quaaludes. By this time, Quaaludes had all but disappeared from the American marketplace. But they did not vanish completely. 

Besides barbiturates, Elvis Presley also had high levels of methaqualone before he died of a cardiac arrhythmia in 1977. A parody of his hit Blue Christmas (hum along if you like!) attests to his use of the drug and his subsequent demise:

Elvis took blue Quaaludes
In Memphis
He was afraid about getting old
Overweight and obese
From eating lots of grease
His singing career 
Would certainly cease 

Elvis took blue Quaaludes
That one night
Next day his blue face was a fright
The King died on the john
But our lives would go on 
Though Elvis took those blue blue Quaaludes

Original Song Title: Blue Christmas
Original Performer: Elvis Presley
Parody Song Title: Blue Quaalude
Parody Written by: Tim Hall

Where the drug is today: While methaqualone is still clandestinely manufactured around the world and distributed illegally, the hub of abuse today is South Africa. Methaqualone is one of the most commonly used hard drugs in that country [Peden, 2002]. Commonly known as Mandrax, M-pills, buttons, or smarties, it is not taken orally but is crushed and mixed in a pipe or in the neck of a glass bottle with readily available, cheap, low-grade cannabis. The drug's price of around $3 qualifies methaqualone as the preferred hard drug of the lower-income, mid and upper sections of South African society. The problem associated with this concoction is highlighted by the fact that methaqualone-related seizures account for over 60% of all street-drug seizures recorded by the South African Police [South African, 2000], with the highest incidence occurring in urban areas [Peden, 2002; Parry, 2005].

Even though Quaaludes were banned in the US decades ago, they are still making news. In 2015, alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby admitted in 2005 to obtaining prescriptions for Quaaludes decades before to anesthetize his would-be victims. 


Angelos SA, Meyers JA. The isolation and identification of precursors and reaction products in the clandestine manufacture of methaqualone and mecloqualone. J Forensic Sci.;1985;30:1022-47.

Falco M. Methaqualone misuse: foreign experience and United States drug control policy. Int J Addict. 1976;11:597-610.

Public Broadcasting System. Frontline. The Quaalude Lesson. Posted February 14, 2006. Available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/faqs/quaaludes.html 

Peden M, Van der Spuy J, Smith P, Bautz P. Substance abuse and trauma in Cape Town. S Afr Med J 2002; 90: 251-255.

Parry CDH, Plüddemann A, Donson H, Sukhai A, Marais S, Lombard C. Cannabis and other drug use among trauma patients in three South African cities, 1999 – 2001. S Afr Med J 2005; 95:428-31.

Serratore A. “Free of One’s Melancholy Life.” The Paris Review. January 28, 2014. 

South African Police Service Forensic Science Laboratory (SAPS FSL): Drug Section, 1999 Annual Report, Pretoria, SAPS FSL, 2000.
Wenner, Jann S. “The Beatles.” Rolling Stone. April 29, 2001.

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