Quaalude Nostalgia: A Retro Drug That Everyone Remembers Fondly

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Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen in the '70s but Quaalude took off like none had before -- until the drug authorities stamped out its use.

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I was talking to a 67-year-old relative about Quaalude at a recent family event. (Does this sort of thing happen to you all the time too, or is it just me?) I know her to be a friendly skeptic on the subject of drugs, and she has made it clear that she never used them herself -- she's a half-glass-of-wine-sends-me-to-bed type. But apparently Quaalude was different. To my surprise, she got a gleam in her eye, something like a faraway look, and said "Now that was a good drug." It was the only drug she'd tried, she said, and she'd only done it once, but she remembered it fondly. She would have done more drugs if they were like that.

Here's the thing: More drugs were like that. Sleeping pills were a dime a dozen, and even if you had a preference for Quaalude, well, until 1973 Quaalude was, if not a dime a dozen, at least easy to come by, and probably not much harder for a decade or so afterward. Chances are that my relative wouldn't have used more drugs like that, because she didn't. And this makes sense: For all the hip and happy memories of Quaalude, it was just a sedative like the others, with the same basic set of risks and rewards. Most likely she didn't use it for the same reason she didn't use other drugs.

So why the nostalgia? I don't want to stretch the point too far. You can have nostalgia about paths not taken, and people aren't required to be logically consistent. And yet the two conflicting dimensions of her experience with Quaalude -- her reality of choosing not to use it, and her memory of it as a "good drug" that she would have done more of -- struck a chord. Like a few other brand name drugs, Quaalude has proved hardier as a cultural symbol than as a medicine. It is used to identify the cultural moment of the long 1970s, listed alongside other signifiers like wife swapping and bell-bottom jeans. It is, as the New York Post referred to it recently, a "retro" drug.

And Quaalude does truly appear to be retro. Some people, somewhere, are still using it, and Quaalude ring busts do occasionally pop up in the news. But overall use of the drug has become so minimal that it is no longer even listed on Drug Abuse Warning Network's reports. According to the 2003-2004 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey, the vast majority of people who have ever tried the drug are over the age of 26. Only one out of every 25 people who have tried Quaalude are younger than that. By way of comparison, one sixth of cocaine users are under 26, along with one fifth of heroin users and one fourth of marijuana users. Clearly Quaalude's days as a hot item among drug users is long past.

Yet if you use Google's Ngram viewer to track books mentioning the drug over time, you see something interesting: references to "methaqualone" (the generic name) rose to a peak in 1980 and have been declining ever since. That's pretty much what you'd expect. But if you search for "Quaalude" you see something different. Mentions rise continuously all the way to 2002 before declining. We're talking about a small number of books, of course, and this is hardly definitive data, but it's further evidence that Quaalude the symbol has outlived methaqualone the drug.

Quaalude was a drug whose timeline perfectly matched the drug-experimentation years of the baby boomers. It appeared when they were young and disappeared when they grew up.

Is this what drug-war success looks like? That rarity of rarities where authorities actually stopped a drug on the time-honored path from miracle medicine to street scourge, and sidetracked it into some relatively harmless retro arena where it is bothersome only as a cultural cliché? The folks at Frontline think so, and argue that if the same tactics used against Quaalude had been used against methamphetamine, a global speed epidemic might have been averted.

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David Herzberg is an associate professor in the University of Buffalo's history department.

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