Methaqualone is the depressant medication most commonly known as Quaalude. It was often prescribed in the 1960s as an alternative to barbiturates, but had the unwanted side effect of being highly addictive. In the U.S., it fell into popular use as a recreational drug and was eventually federally designated as an illegal substance.
Methaqualone was first synthesized by Indian biochemists in 1951. By the mid 1960s, it had become a globally popular prescription for such conditions as anxiety and insomnia, sold under various brand names like Mandrax and Quaalude. It was thought to be helpful as a psychological relaxant and as a sleeping pill.
This drug is a sedative, or tranquilizer, and a central nervous system depressant that suppresses and slows down brain function. The effect extends to the peripheral nervous system with corresponding suppression of the motor nerves that control muscle movement. Methaqualone is also an effective muscle relaxant.
The 1960s was a decade characterized by experimental, recreational, and sometimes abusive drug use, both those naturally extracted and synthetically created. Methaqualone is included among such drugs of that time. Its psychological effects can include euphoria, or a heightened feeling of well-being; aphrodisia, or increased sexual arousal; and paresthesia, or numbness of the fingers and toes. Its additional effects of lowering inhibitions and relaxing muscles made it a popular drug at discotheques and dance clubs.
At higher doses, methaqualone can cause a sensitivity to light, and an alarming decrease of cardiac and respiration rate. Overdose can completely arrest the heart and lungs, preceded by mental delirium and physical convulsions. Other distress, such as kidney failure and coma, are also potentially fatal.
Methaqualone is referred as a sedative hypnotic drug. Particularly when mixed with alcohol, another depressant drug, a “blackout” can afflict the user. Though conscious, with loosened inhibitions resulting in susceptibility to suggestion, there is a loss of recollection of events for the active duration of the drug. As a result, it has been implicated in many cases of date rape.
In addition to increasing incidence of the drug’s use to commit crimes and the serious consequences of overdose, there is accumulating evidence that methaqualone is highly addictive. The course of addiction is a rapid build-up of psychological tolerance toward physically fatal dosage. Treatment with the physical trauma of so-called “cold turkey” withdrawal is typically followed by subjecting the patient to a controlled dependence to barbiturate drug alternatives, which has an equally difficult but better known course of effective treatment.
Within one decade, the governments of several countries felt compelled to more tightly regulate the drug’s distribution. Another decade later, it was banned in many countries. In 1985, the United States government declared methaqualone as a Schedule 1 illegal drug, the same category as heroin.