The drug could be injected, liquefied or taken in tablet form. When combined with alcohol, the effects, including sedation, euphoria and sleep, could be greatly amplified. It was odorless, tasteless and inexpensive.
Quaalude, a synthetic depressant, was once quite literally the perfect date-rape drug.
Whether or not Bill Cosby is found guilty, his behavior in using the drug with women he wanted to sleep with is still extremely troublesome. His current trial and what it means should not go away. If anything, it’s time to step up conversations about what it means to have consensual sex and why consuming any mood-altering substance before sex could be ethically and morally problematic. If you can’t get a potential partner to consent, with no blurry line—it’s time to walk away.
The origins of Quaalude, all but eradicated in the last 30 years, are not definitive. Many sources cite M.I. Gujral from India as the first to synthesize the drug (while looking for a malaria treatment), but that factoid is hard to prove.
What we do know is that in the ’70s, Quaalude (the brand name for methaqualone), also known by a flurry of other names, including “disco biscuits,” was a popular party drug known for its ability to lower inhibitions, a perfect fit for the free-love aesthetic of the time. Once addiction and deaths began to rise, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration convinced labs to stop synthesizing the chemicals needed to make the drug. In 1984 it was listed as a Schedule 1 drug, in the same category as heroin and Ecstasy. The drug, relatively difficult to create outside of chemical laboratories, was effectively taken out of circulation by the late ’80s.
Cosby has admitted to securing prescriptions of the drug to give to women he planned to have sex with dating back to the 1970s. What he’s never confessed to is whether or not he drugged any of these women without their express consent—which would make any sexual activity fall under the description of drug-facilitated sexual assault.
So why did Cosby choose methaqualone?
It was likely for the same reasons Rohypnol (“roofies”) would later become popular in the ’90s. It’s easy to use, whether one lies about what the pill is (as Andrea Constand testified), or surreptitiously drops it in a drink where it can’t be smelled or tasted.
And what is mostly likely to have made Quaaludes attractive to Cosby is what also makes the allegations against him so disturbing.
The drug and others like it don’t render victims unconscious. The person will be groggy, with slurred speech and stiff, frozen muscles that make it difficult to move. But the person is awake. And she or he can speak—even if the person won’t remember it all once the drug has worn off.
At the heart of the sexual assault trial is that Cosby maintains he gave Constand Benadryl, an antihistamine, to “relax” her for what would be a consensual sexual encounter at his home in 2004. Constand says that he offered her several pills, saying that they were herbal and urging her to take them.
Cosby may be telling the truth about offering her Benadryl. The prosecuting team in the trial is pushing to make sure the jury understands how much Benadryl—known for slurring speech and muscle stiffness—can mimic the same symptoms as methaqualone.
“In my head, I was trying to get my hands to move or my legs to move,” Constand said. “But I was frozen.”
The pills Cosby offered to investigators were tested and confirmed to be the allergy drug. However, Constand was not tested at the time of the alleged assault. Although methaqualone is illegal and hard to find in the United States, the DEA has seized a few shipments from international waters over the years. (The drug also remains extremely popular in South Africa.) Is it probable that Cosby still had access to methaqualone in 2004? The prosecution attempted to insert that possibility. Because the drug is hard to find, the defense easily shot down that line of questioning.
Whether its Quaaludes or Benadryl, the fact remains that Cosby’s modus operandi for his sexual encounters opens up a much larger conversation about how we move forward with thinking about sexual assault.
The idea of a “real rape” involving a scary person hiding in the bushes has to be done with once and for all. Sexual attacks come in all shapes and forms.
Often? It’s more likely someone the victim knows. Or it can be a hometown hero and national treasure who offers “herbal” pills and a glass of wine so you can relax.