“Quaaludes happen to be the drug that kids, young people were using to party with,” Bill Cosby said in his 2005 deposition. And that is probably the image most of us have of the pills, popular in the ’70s, the decade of disco and decadence. “Disco Biscuits,” they were called—I can almost picture a lipsticked Mick Jagger slipping one to Jerry Hall at Studio 54.
But in the wake of New York magazine’s instantly iconic cover featuring 35 of Cosby’s accusers (and one empty chair), the real effects of Quaaludes (methaqualone) are back in the headlines. And they are far more terrifying than the reputation suggests.
“I cannot keep balance. I cannot keep consciousness… I think I may have lost reasoning. I am death.” That’s what one Quaaludes user posted on the psychedelic website Erowid during his trip. And that was one he took voluntarily. Many of Cosby’s victims, assuming their stories are true, did not have that choice.
The testimony published in New York is similar. Some victims say things like “I really don’t remember much, except waking up in his bedroom. He was naked, and he was forcing himself into my mouth.”
Which, of course, is horrible enough. But depending on dosage and metabolism, Quaaludes often leave users semi-awake, confused, and unable to control themselves.
“I could hear the words in my head,” said one accuser, “but I couldn’t form words with my mouth, because I was so drugged out. He got up and came over, and he sat down and unzipped his fly.”
Said another, “I started not feeling well… Something was wrong with me. And then he took my right hand, and he put it behind my back. I remember seeing semen on the floor. And I felt some liquid on my hand. That was when I knew something sexual was going on.”
Notice, in these testimonies, the horrifying blend of consciousness and confusion. Reports of Quaaludes often have these characteristics: Users are dimly aware of themselves and their surroundings, but often unable to do anything about it.
That can be fun, of course, if you’ve knowingly taken the drug, in the right dosage, and with people you trust. These are, after all, the characteristics of drug, set, and setting that, psychedelic enthusiasts say, differentiates enjoyable (or even transformative) experiences from terrifying or abusive ones. And combined with Quaaludes’ effect on libido (“ludes made them hornier than anything in the whole world,” says one nostalgic user), it’s easy to see the appeal, especially in a pre-MDMA age.
But imagine the terror if you don’t know what you’ve taken, and the man you thought was a trustworthy father figure turns out to be a rapist.
Media reports have often tended to frame Cosby’s M.O. as causing these women to black out, and then sexually assaulting them. But as horrible as that is, what Cosby actually did is far worse. He kept many of his victims semi-conscious, but unable to defend themselves. Many of them were likely awake throughout the ordeal.
And then there’s the question of dosage.
One Erowid user wrote that, at 400mg, being high on Quaaludes was “just as pleasurable as one can imagine.” But 1,000mg, he wrote, was a “big mistake” that impaired his motor skills and almost caused him to pass out.
Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall Street” himself, experienced both at once. “It was as if my brain was sending out signals but they were being intercepted—or scrambled. I felt paralyzed. And I felt wonderful.”
Of course, that’s Jordan Belfort.
We don’t know the exact dosage of the Quaaludes Cosby used on his victims. In the 1970s, the standard prescription doses were 75mg or 125mg, and so that was likely the dosage he received from his doctor. But it’s not clear how many pills he gave the women—and of course, many of them were also under the influence of alcohol. (Which, incidentally, is by far the leading date rape drug in America.)
Nor are Quaaludes entirely a relic of the 1970s. Although they were banned in the U.S. in 1984 (although homemade versions are available, methaqualone is much harder to make than, say, crystal meth), they are still popular as recreational drugs elsewhere.
In particular, methaqualone is popular in South Africa, where it’s known as Mandrax (a name derived from the Mandrake root, said to boost sexual potency) and reportedly comprises over half the drugs seized by police. The most recent big bust took place just last week.
The reasons for the drug’s enduring appeal are obvious: Its effects can lead to euphoria, lowered inhibitions, and mind-blowing sex. But when abused by a sexual predator, those same effects can be more terrifying than we imagine.