By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.
Methaqualone is a sedative-hypnotic drug that is similar in effect to barbiturates, a general central nervous system depressant. Its use peaked in the 1960s and 1970s as a hypnotic, for the treatment of insomnia, and as a sedative and muscle relaxant. It has also been used illegally as a recreational drug, commonly known as Quaaludes, Sopors, Ludes or Mandrax (particularly in the 1970s in North America/Canada) depending on the manufacturer. Since at least 2001, it has been widely used in South Africa, where it is commonly referred to as "smarties" or "geluk-tablette" (meaning happy tablets). Clandestinely produced methaqualone is still seized by government agencies and police forces around the world.
Methaqualone was first synthesized in India in 1951 by Indra Kishore Kacker and Syed Hussain Zaheer, and was soon introduced to Japanese and European consumers as a safe barbiturate substitute. By 1965 it was the most commonly prescribed sedative in Britain, where it has been sold legally under the names Malsed, Malsedin, and Renoval. In 1965 a Methaqualone/antihistamine combination was sold as the sedative drug Mandrax, by Roussel Laboratories (now part of Sanofi-Aventis). At about the same time, it was becoming a popular recreational drug (called "mandies" or "mandrake" or "mandrix"). In 1972 it was the sixth-bestselling sedative in the USA, where it was legal under the brand name Quaalude; at that time "luding out" was a popular college pastime. This is the similar effect of an alcoholic blackout with no recollection of events. Effects can include euphoria, drowsiness, reduced heart rate, reduced respiration, increased sexual arousal (aphrodisia), and paresthesias (numbness of the fingers and toes). Larger doses can bring about respiratory depression, slurred speech, headache, and photophobia (a symptom of excessive sensitivity to light).
An overdose can cause delirium, convulsions, hypertonia, hyperreflexia, vomiting, renal insufficiency, coma, and death through cardiac or respiratory arrest. It resembles barbiturate poisoning, but with increased motor difficulties and a lower incidence of cardiac or respiratory depression. Toxicity is treated with diazepam and sometimes other anticonvulsants. Quaaludes became increasingly popular as a recreational drug in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The drug was used during sexual activity because of heightened sensitivity and lowered inhibition coupled with relaxation and euphoria.
The drug was often used by people who went dancing at glam rock clubs in the early 1970s and at discos in the late 1970s; however, it was no easy task to learn how to dance on Quaaludes and balance oneself properly while wearing platform shoes. One slang term for Quaaludes was disco biscuits. In the mid 1970s there were special bars in Manhattan called juice bars that only served non-alcoholic drinks that catered to people who liked to dance on methaqualone. The drug was more tightly regulated in Britain under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and in the U.S. from 1973. It was withdrawn from many developed markets in the early 1980s (in 1982 in the United States), being made a Schedule I drug in the U.S. in 1984.
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