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Unconsciousness Expansion: The Sopor Story

Methaqualone, a.k.a. Sopor or Quaalude, is a central nervous system depressant, a sedative-hypnotic. But Quaalude Culture is not without drawbacks

Said Correspondent X:

“It’s utterly fantastic. Quaalude made me feel friendly, open and receptive. In fact, it made me feel permanently receptive. I got into things I’d never gotten into before and they’re still with me.”

Said Correspondent Y:

“Other downs bring me too down. I just fall out, so I have to fight them and by the time I stop fighting, I’m not high any more. Quaalude calms me down and makes me mellow and loose. I want to dance, talk, dance, cook; I can even drive on it. And I can make love on it very nicely. But I don’t lose control at all and there’s no hangover; I’m always alert the next morning.”

Both quotes are from the spring of 1971, when methaqualone—2-Methyl-3-ortho-tolyl-4-quinazolone, known commercially as Quaalude, Sopor, Mandrax, Optimil and Parest, among other names—was beginning its fantastic rise in popularity. It seemed to be what a lot of people were looking for: A downer without drawbacks. It wasn’t, though.

Methaqualone is classed as a central nervous system depressant, a sedative-hypnotic. It’s prescribed as a sedative and a sleeping pill. If you don’t follow doctor’s orders, though, and take a sleeping dose while you’re actually running around doing things, you feel high. Specifically: relaxed to the drooping point, comfortable (the pain threshold is higher), confident, and consequently uninhibited, communicative and generous.

You’ll also be unable to coordinate your muscles very well, or tell where your limbs exactly are, when undertaking tricky tasks such as walking; you’ll understand the meaning of the term “wallbanger.” Your speech will be slurred. Your eyes may play ping-pong a little in their sockets. But none of this will matter much to you. People who have taken enough quacks can fall down flights of stairs and not feel the bruises until the next day.

On higher doses the effects are more pronounced. Coordination becomes very difficult due to muscular tremors, which it has been suspected are actually symptoms of partial anaesthesia of the muscles. An acute overdose of 2.4 grams (say, eight 300-mg tabs) can result in coma and convulsions. Death has followed a dose of as low as 8 grams. A dose higher than the sleeping dose can depress tracheo-bronchial reflexes to a dangerous degree—so that if you were to vomit in your sleep, you could choke to death,·Jimi Hendrix style. Overdose and fatal dose levels are much lower if in addition to methaqualone you’ve taken any other downs, such as barbiturates or phenobarbs—or alcohol. Rock & roll has already seen its first methaqualone OD: Danny Whitten, formerly of Crazy Horse.

Who would want to take such high dosages? Suicides, for one. There were a number of methaqualone suicides in Germany when the drug was available without prescription. Who else? People who are so stoned they forget how many they’ve taken. And finally, although it would take a real handful of pills to kill someone who had developed tolerance after long, heavy use, the possibility always lurks in a wallbanger’s future. Physical tolerance, the danger level, rises more slowly than psychological tolerance, the amount it takes to get you high. The levels tend inexorably to get closer and closer.

And yes, Quaaludes are addicting, as addicting as barbiturates or any other medicine-chest high, with the same evil withdrawal symptoms.

“Qualitatively and quantitatively,” says Dr. George Gay, Director of Clinical Activities at the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic, “there is no discernible difference between Quaalude or Sopor and reds, the barbiturates. Quaalude has all the bad qualities of barbs. It’s a respiratory depressant, and when it’s taken in combination with other downs or alcohol there is an additive effect. It can totally suppress breathing.

“And although the drug companies and the Physicians’ Desk Reference don’t acknowledge this, it is addicting. Ten Quaaludes a day for a month is enough to give you a physical habit, such that if you stop flat, cold turkey, you will exhibit the prodrome to convulsions, just like a barbiturate addict: sweating, disturbed sleep and nightmares, white-knuckled tension. Methaqualone has only been popular for a relatively short time, and I have no doubt that soon we’ll be seeing addicts with heavy enough habits that they actually will go into convulsions.”

The dangers of addiction and poisoning have been recognized in other countries, among them Britain, where methaqualone was included in the Drug Prevention of Misuse Act of 1971. Earlier than that, half the drug addicts in Japanese hospitals in the mid-Sixties were on quacks.

Methaqualone has a somewhat bizarre origin. In the beginning it was touted as an anti-malaria drug and widely distributed in Africa. Its sedative qualities were noted in 1955 and it was put on the market, first in Germany, as the latest in the postwar series of “non-barbiturate” downs that has included Ciba’s Doriden (glutethimide) and Wallace’s Miltown (meprobamate). All these “non-barbiturates” have eventually been found, after heavy promotion by the pharmaceutical industry and wide prescription by trusting doctors, to be about equally dangerous as the barbiturates.

The two commonest forms of the drug sold in the U.S. are straight methaqualone (Sopor, Quaalude) and methaqualone hydrochloride (Parest, Optimil, Somnafac). The hydrochloride is absorbed by the system faster than the straight chemical. Also, for some reason, the hydrochloride is sold in capsule form, while Sopor and Quaalude are tablets.

Arnar-Stone’s Sopor is sold in tablets imprinted with a bold A above a bold B. The color is green, yellow or orange, accordingly as the tab is 75, 150 or 300 mg. Rorer’s Quaalude comes in 150-mg and 300-mg tabs, both white. The smaller says WHR, the larger RORER. The hydrochloride forms come in 200- and 400-mg caps, coded respectively light blue and two-tone blue (Parest), red and red and blue (Optimil) and two-tone blue and dark blue (Somnafac).

There is also a form of methaqualone buffered with two amphetamines, marketed by Strasenburgh (Rochester, N.Y.). Biphetamine-T 12 1/2 consists of 6.25 mg each of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine with 40 mg of methaqualone. In Biphetamine-T 20, the amphetamine quantities are increased to 10 mg each. In England methaqualone is marketed under the names Melsedin and Mandrax (the latter also contains diphenhydramine or Benadryl, an antihistamine sleeper). Another trade name is Strasenburgh’s Tuazole.

“We had Quaalude here in the Haight briefly in ’68,” says Dr. Gay. “Then it faded, probably because of the smack epidemic. In ’68 and ’69 there was a lot of up-down scene, following the big speed era. The bikers moved into the Street and brought their own street pharmacology for easing the comedown from speed. They’d take barbs or smack after a couple of days’ speed run. Then in ’71 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs started scheduling drugs, and barbs became harder to get—though of course there are still twice as many barbs manufactured as are sold by prescription.

“Then Quaalude showed up in Florida and Washington, D.C. It started being noticeable here in ’71 and has increased greatly in the last year. In fact, it’s everywhere. In Illinois, say, it’s a visible problem in the black community. In Houston it’s made inroads among young whites.

“There is a strong regionalism to the problem. Rorer, which makes Quaalude, is located right outside Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is saturated with Quaalude. Wallace, in New Jersey, makes Optimil; New Jersey has an Optimil problem. Likewise Parest, made by Parke, Davis in Detroit. Sopor, made by Arnar-Stone in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, is big in St. Louis and Chicago, all over the Midwest.

“The Physicians’ Desk Reference says nothing to warn the doctor about methaqualone. If you look up under Parest or whatever, you’ll only find something like, ‘contraindicated for persons with liver disease, pregnant women or any woman who may become pregnant, people under 14.’ What the hell does that mean? It means it’s an experimental drug. I wouldn’t prescribe a pregnant woman aspirin, for that matter.

“It may say, ‘pending longer term clinical experience, should not be used continuously for periods exceeding four weeks,’ or three months, depending on the manufacturer. It recommends against prescribing to an ‘addictive personality,’ but without exception it says addictiveness is ‘not demonstrated’ or ‘rarely reported.’ The poor overworked doc gets big boxes of samples from the drug company, looks up in the PDR and nothing there says it’s addictive, it looks clean, and so he starts passing them out. He doesn’t know he’s doing anything harmful.

“Of course by now there are scrip doctors who are signing prescriptions to huge amounts of the drug. We know of a doctor who signed a scrip for 300 pills one day, then turned around and prescribed 300 more to the same patient the next day. Fully a third of the people we see here at the Clinic who’ve done Quaalude have gotten it from a doctor. It sells in the street about 30¢, but it wholesales for $5.60 per hundred, five and a half cents apiece. I suspect there is some kickback going on between the pharmacist and the scrip doc.

“And people are fixing it like smack now, too. It’s much worse to shoot than smack because it’s so alkaline. It’s like shooting barbs; it causes cellulitis and abscesses.”

Dr. Gay is a special consultant to the Food and Drug Administration and feels sure that methaqualone will be rescheduled soon. “Senator Birch Bayh is concerned about Quaaludes and has been making addresses about it. The Committee wants to move methaqualone up to Schedule 2, up there with cocaine, morphine, methadone and amphetamine, and though everything is up in the air right now I’m pretty certain that will happen soon.

“There are a lot of reasons why people have taken to methaqualone, of course. There’s the ex-speeders. Then there’s the attraction of its sensual pleasantness and its mystique as a love drug, an orgy drug. It does release inhibitions, but for sex it’s about the same as alcohol—as Shakespeare said, ‘It increaseth the desire but taketh away the performance.’ For the man, that is. It tends to make sex impossible.

“Then there’s the difficulty of getting grass and other drugs, from time to time in various places. It does, after all, make you high, give you the feeling that you’ve taken a drug. And finally, I don’t think you can ignore the sociology of downers. People are bored and depressed in the doldrums of the Nixon years.

“But what a drug to take. It has all the possible disadvantages a drug can have. It’s a garbage drug, a real drug of abuse.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Drugs

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