In Western popular consciousness, the once-widespread Quaalude (pronounced kway-lewd) has become synonymous with two famous men.
The first is Leonardo DiCaprio - or, more precisely, Jordan Belfort, his cash-happy character in Scorsese’s '80s-set film The Wolf of Wall Street. In arguably the 2013 movie's most memorable sequence, Leo ingests a few too many of the little round pills, a decision that transforms his usually basic journey from the front door to his Ferrari Testarossa into a battle to reach Mt Everest’s summit.
While Marty shot the scene with a comedic tinge, in reality, there’s nothing overly funny about the Quaalude, as evidenced by the second man most synonymous with the all-powerful drug: Bill Cosby. We don’t have to go any further into that one.
Thank the universe this substance has been wiped from the face of the earth. Or so we thought. This week on Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, VICELAND takes us to South Africa, where the dated drug has metastasised into incredibly sinister territory.
The Quaalude backstory
The name Quaalude was merely the US branding of the chemical compound Methaqualone, if that kinda thing interests you.
Synthesised in India in the early '50s, the potent pills colonised Japan and Germany, and were quickly abused ad nauseam. That fact either didn’t reach or bother Americans once Quaaludes infected the US party scene in the '60s, when they may as well have been dolled out with an accompanying Pez dispenser.
By 1972, the Quaalude was the most prescribed sedative in both the US and UK, and so ingrained into popular culture it earned the nickname "disco biscuit". Heck, even David Bowie referenced the stuff in the track "Time" from his Ziggy-era headfudge Aladdin Sane, while Studio 54 vets often look back at the Quaalude-fueled disco days with asterisked nostalgia.
The Quaalude effect
The initially euphoric sedative lulls the user into a powerful hypnotic state, whereby the more they take, the more they lose control of their faculties. Just as alarming is the side-effect of memory loss. It doesn’t take that high a dose to remove all ability to recount a Quaalude experience.
However, the rapid decline of the Quaalude’s fame was after party-goers began mixing it with alcohol, resulting in reckless results in the form of accident-related deaths. We’re not talking unplanned overdoses from the drug itself, but the effects that horrifying decisions made by the user had on their sober counterparts – mostly in the vehicular arena.
By 1984, the Quaalude was made illegal in both the US and UK.
The modern Quaalude
Within the first few moments of Hamilton Morris’s journey to the heart of Quaalude country in South Africa, it is quickly apparent the drug’s use in Anglo history seems positively tame in comparison.
Surrounded by gangsters and dealers, the bespectacled presenter bears witness to those ravaged by smoking Quaaludes - or, as Methaqualone is branded over there, Mandrax. No filmmaker would dare shoot a comedic scene after seeing what Hamilton saw.
The South African Quaalude is a street-level substance that only starts out in pill form. Natives turn to the method of crushing the pill between dirty, folded paper money, then inserting the results into a “white pipe”, which is basically the smashed neck of a glass bottle, plugged with a cotton filter.
This method of smoking a Quaalude/Mandrax is exponentially more potent as it is more addictive.
Dr Death and the frightening origin of the South African Quaalude
Man, this one’s almost difficult to type. We’re not sure if you’ve ever heard of Wouter Basson or his brainchild, "Project Coast", but here’s the disturbing lowdown…
Basson was a cardiologist and the personal physician to the South African President in the '90s. In 1999, he was put on trial for - deep breath - weaponising street drugs as a means of “crowd control” in the event of an anti-apartheid uprising. And Mandrax was his primary investment. Sheesh.
Purposefully tweaking and leaking the sedative into low socio-economic areas seems like something out of an R-rated comic book. And while this maniac was acquitted (and fired from his military position with full pay), most in-the-know South Africans see the man as blatantly guilty, and of course, villainously racist.
Explore quaaludes with Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, on SBS VICELAND, Tuesday 18 April at 9:20pm. Previous episodes are streaming on SBS On Demand: