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Quaaludes: From Bill Cosby to the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

By now, everyone knows about the allegations against Bill Cosby. During the past year, dozens of women have come forward accusing the comedian of rape. Dating back decades to Cosby’s time as a television star, the accusations often follow a similar pattern: They begin with an innocuous-looking little pill and end in accusations of sexual assault.

On Monday, however, startling news broke concerning the accusations. The Associated Press obtained a 2005 court deposition in which Cosby admitted that he obtained drugs to use on women.

[In 2005, Bill Cosby admitted seeking drugs to give to women | Read the court documents]

For some, the news confirmed a common thread to the accusations and bolstered the case — in the court of public opinion, at least — against the comedian. (Cosby did not admit to any criminal activity in the documents and has steadfastly denied the assault claims. He has never been charged with a crime.)

But for those in their 40s or older, the court documents were notable for another reason: They gave a name to the drug Cosby allegedly used. A very recognizable name.


[How Bill Cosby’s 2004 ‘Pound Cake’ speech exploded into his latest legal disaster]

More than 30 years after its production and distribution were banned in the United States, the drug still enjoys cult status in this country. A hypnotic sedative said to induce euphoria and boost sex drive, the drug became synonymous with the disco era of the 1970s.

Bill Cosby’s life and career

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 26: Comedian/actor Bill Cosby performs at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on September 26, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Even after disappearing from shelves in 1983, it has resurfaced time and time again — in pop culture and on the black market. On countless Internet chat rooms, old-timers reminisce about Quaaludes while young people scheme to buy — or make — the drug. Drug counselors warn of the dangers of Quaaludes, that they can lead to seizures, coma or death, especially if taken with alcohol.

If the drug had cult status before, it launched back into the mainstream in 2013 with the blockbuster “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Martin Scorcese’s Academy Award-nominated film depicted traders popping ‘ludes like Pez and waxing poetic on their powers. Interest surged anew.

Long before they became associated with Bill Cosby, Quaaludes were linked to addiction and — in at least one infamous case — sexual assault.

In its paean to the powerful drug, “The Wolf of Wall Street” sums up the short but scandalous life of Quaaludes. Playing real-life “wolf” Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an ode early on in the film, before the drug and his other vices get the best of him:

The quaalude was first synthesized in 1951 by an Indian doctor — that’s dot Indian, not feathers — as a sedative, and was prescribed to stressed housewives with sleep disorders. Pretty soon someone figured out that if you resisted the urge to sleep for 15 minutes, you got a pretty kick-ass high from it. Didn’t take long for people to start abusing ludes, ‘course, and in 1982 the U.S. Government Schedule One’d them, along with the rest of the world. Which meant there was only a finite amount of these things left. No s—, you can’t even find ‘em anymore today. You people’re all s— outta luck.

Belfort is by no means the only one to become enamored with — and dependent on — the drug. It was invented in 1951 in India for use as an antimalarial drug. But its powerful sedative and mild hallucinogenic properties ensured that it quickly found another use. Pennsylvania pharmaceuticals company William H. Rorer Inc. began selling methaqualone — as it was officially known — as a sedative in the United States in 1965.

“Often prescribed to nervous housewives, a quaalude was something between a sleeping pill and a sedative,” Angela Serratore wrote last year in the Paris Review. “The name ‘quaalude’ is both a play on ‘Maalox,’ another product manufactured by William H. Rorer Inc., and a synthesis of the phrase ‘quiet interlude’ — a concept so simple and often so out of reach. Just whisper ‘quiet interlude’ to yourself a few times. Seductive, no? It’s the pill in the ‘take a pill and lie down’ directive thousands of Don Drapers gave their Bettys.”

Whether they were Betty Drapers or disco dancers, Quaalude devotees quickly realized that the drug’s initial drowsy stage gave way to a euphoric high.

“To stay home feeling ecstatic was one thing, but imagine being out! Music! Lights! Sweaty, writhing bodies! Of course quaaludes were at the center of the seventies disco movement,” Serratore wrote. “Manhattan was littered with ‘juice bars,’ nightclubs where no alcohol was sold but quaaludes could be had for a song. (Speaking of songs, here’s an incomplete list of musicians who wrote songs referencing ’ludes: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and the Tubes, whose lead singer’s stage character was called Quay Lewd.)

“As with all fashionable drugs, quaaludes make countless appearances in the diaries of Andy Warhol, who, for the sake of verisimilitude and sheer meanness, took great pleasure in documenting the quantities ingested by those on the dance floor at Studio 54,” she continued.

In 1977, the drugs were at the center of a lurid sex scandal. Hollywood director Roman Polanski was accused of giving a 13-year-old girl champagne and a Quaalude before raping and sodomizing her. Polanski pleaded guilty to sex with a minor, but when a judge threatened to sentence him to as much as 50 years in prison, the director fled the country. (He was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 but released.)

[Director Roman Polanski’s arrest puts U.S. justice system on world stage]

Quaaludes were also making headlines for other, broader problems.

In 1978, Rorer sold the rights to manufacture the drug to the Lemmon Company — a name immortalized in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Already, Quaaludes were plagued by bad publicity. The small white pills were being wildly sold to addicts on the black market. Abuse and overdoses skyrocketed. At the time of the sale, Rorer chairman John Eckman said, “Quaalude accounted for less than 2 percent of our sales but created 98 percent of our headaches.”

As the disco era drew to a close, the Quaalude craze spiraled even further out of control. In 1979, 87 people died nationwide after illegally taking the drug, the AP reported at the time. The next year, the number rose to 117.

In 1983, Lemmon bowed to the bad publicity and stopped making Quaaludes. The next year, Ronald Reagan signed a law banning them.

For the next decade or so, the extremely wealthy and extremely desperate could still track down some ‘ludes. South Africa began manufacturing a version of the drug (called Mandrax), fueling its own epidemic.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Belfort — played by DiCaprio — receives a rare and dangerously expired bottle of Lemmon ‘ludes sometime in the early ’90s. In the movie, the gift contributes to the trader’s downfall.

Martin Scorcese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" chronicles the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life con man who made more than $100 million off of unwitting investors. DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Scorcese earned Oscar nominations for acting and directing, and the film is also nominated for best picture. (Video: Paramount Pictures)

And in her book, “Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion,” former Playmate Izabella St. James describes Hugh Hefner having access to the banned pills between 2002 and 2004. “In the limo, Hef would also hand out Quaaludes to whichever Girlfriends wanted them,” she wrote. “He always broke them in half so that the girls didn’t get too rowdy.”

The latest Quaalude headlines cast the little white pills in a very different light, however.

According to the deposition that emerged on Monday, Bill Cosby’s use of the drug dates to its 1970s heyday.

In 2005, a woman named Andrea Constand sued Cosby, accusing him of giving her three blue pills before sexually assaulting her in January 2004.

In the deposition — which was sealed until the AP won a court order to obtain it — Cosby said that he gave Constand only three half-pills of Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy medication.

During the same deposition, however, Cosby admitted to getting seven prescriptions for Quaaludes in the 1970s. He also admitted to meeting one unidentified woman after a performance in Las Vegas and offering her the drug. “I give her Quaaludes. We then have sex,” he said.

Cosby was asked by Dolores M. Troiani, Constand’s attorney, “When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?”

“Yes,” Cosby replied.