While film director Roman Polanski fights extradition to the United States, time is taken here to remember Quaalude—the drug that a 43-year-old Polanski allegedly gave to a 13-year-old girl before he had sex with her in 1977.*
Quaalude is the trade name for methaqualone, a chemical developed in the 1950s in India as an antimalarial compound. Contemporaneous data also indicated that the drug provided “good hypnotic activity” and had “low toxicity” when compared with widely used barbiturate sedatives. Consequently, during the 1960s, the drug became a popular prescription alternative to potentially addictive agents like secobarbital (Seconal; Eli Lilly) for the treatment of insomnia.
In the United States, the drug was first sold by Pennsylvania-based William H. Rorer, Inc, which applied the trademark Quaalude to its tablets in 1965. The company incorporated the double-a into the brand name as a way of capitalizing on the success of its antiacid product, Maalox (which is now owned by Novartis Consumer Health). The recommended therapeutic dosage for Quaalude was 150 or 300 mg.
Reports of physiologic addiction to and overdose of methaqualone were published repeatedly in the medical literature, beginning in the late 1960s (for example, here and here). Among Americans, abuse of Quaalude exploded during the 1970s, especially among young adults and teens—who often combined the drug with alcohol for a really soporific buzz. The activity was known as “luding out.” The drug also gained a word-of-mouth reputation as an aphrodisiac and enhancer of sexual pleasure (eg, “The Love Drug” or “Heroin for Lovers”); although these effects were overstated, if not outrightly made up. As one young user described her Quaalude experience to the Washington Post in 1978: “I fell asleep.”
With the rise of its legitimate and recreational popularity, the unpatented methaqualone was also legally manufactured in the United States by Anar-Stone Laboratories, which called its capsule Sopor (in 75-, 150-, and 300-mg doses). Other American manufacturers of methaqualone compounds included Parke-Davis (Parest) and Wallace (Optimil).
A 1972 Chicago Tribune report (“A Sedative Gains in Drug Culture”) indicated that the street cost of methaqualone was 25 or 50 cents per pill. Slang names for the drug included “Rorers” and “seven-fourteens.” These terms were derived from the stamp on the branded Quaalude tablet, “Rorer 714.” In her grand jury testimony, Polanski’s 13-year-old victim reported that the director gave her part of a tablet (dose unknown) that had “Rorer 714” on it.**
According to a 2006 “Frontline” report, high methaqualone demand in the United States was supplied not only by drug firms, but through rogue domestic labs and counterfeit South American operations. In 1981, recreational use of methaqualone was so widespread that it ranked second to marijuana in popularity. The DEA estimated that 80%-90% of the world’s methaqualone production was diverted to the illegal drug business. (The DoJ cites the emergence of “stress clinics” in New York, New Jersey, and Florida—essentially B&M equivalents of today’s dubious online pharmacies—for the boost of methaqualone abuse in the early 1980s.)
“Frontline” credits the DEA’s Gene Haislip with shutting down the illicit methaqualone business in the United States. Haislip successfully convinced foreign manufacturers of the methaqualone powder and their resident countries to stop production. And without the powder, South American producers, like those in Colombia, could no longer pound out pills for export. Simultaneously US physicians began prescribing other hypnotics as sleep aids, and law enforcement shut down the stress clinics. Then in 1984, federal legislation banned the domestic production and sale of methaqualone; in other words, the compound was designated a Schedule I drug.
South Africa is the current hotbed of methaqualone abuse. There the drug is consumed in the form of Mandrax (which combines 250 mg of methaqualone with 25 mg of diphenhydramine). The tablet is typically crushed and snorted or smoked with cannibis.
* Polanski also allegedly plied the girl with champagne. For relevant court records, including Polanski’s contemporaneous guilty plea to having sex with a minor, start at thesmokinggun.com.
** Rorer 714 t-shirts were a popular counterculture item.
Image of methaqualone pills attributed to Indiana Prevention Resource Center.