What are Quaaludes, the Drug The Wolf of Wall Street Makes Look So Fun?

By Chris Mills on at

If you've watched The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo DiCaprio's sex-and-narcotics-fuelled romp through the rise and fall of a dodgy Wall Street trading firm, you've probably wondered about the magic pills that left Leo crashing helicopters and crawling around his living room: Quaaludes.


The Legal Beginnings

The Quaalude tale starts in the 1950s, when it was first synthesised by two Indian scientists, Indra Kishore Kacker and Syed Hussain Zaheer. These weren't low-lifes looking for a quick high, though -- both were respected chemists researching anti-malarial drugs when they stumbled across methaqualone, the active ingredient in Quaaludes.

Quickly realising its potential as a safer and more effective substitute for barbiturates, the popular sleeping pill of the time, methaqualone was marketed in Europe to great success -- by 1965, methaqualone-containing sleeping pills had become the most popularly-supplied sedative in Britain.

Around that time, the William H. Rorer pharmaceutical company in the US began the manufacture and sale of Quaalude, a mash-up of 'quiet interlude'. Quaaludes took off as a prescription drug, but soon, users began realising that in combining 'ludes with alcohol, and then fighting off sleep, creates an incredible high.


The Ultimate Party Drug

The party effects of Quaaludes aren't exactly scientifically documented, but reading between the lines of Jordan Belfort's autobiography (that's right, the Wolf of Wall Street movie is based on a real-life book), the high seems to be pretty incredible:

“All at once a warm feeling came rising up my brain stem, as a pleasant tingling sensation went ricocheting through every molecule of my body. The phone receiver was still at my ear and I wanted to tell Bo to have Rocco come pick me up at the Brookville Country Club, but I couldn’t get my lips to move. It was as if my brain was sending out signals but they were being intercepted—or scrambled. I felt paralyzed. And I felt wonderful. I stared at the shiny metal face of the pay phone and cocked my head to the side, trying to find my own reflection…How pretty the phone looked!…So shiny it was!”

Excerpt From: Jordan Belfort: The Wolf of Wall Street

Anonymous internet users also seem to have enjoyed the experience:

The first time I did my Quaaludes with my friend W at his house. We took one capsule each, which weighed betweened [sic] 400 and 500 mgs. Within 30 minutes we were feeling amazing. My friend described the feeling as Ecstacy without the trippy part. We both thought the project had been a smashing success.

Medically, methaqualone is a depressant: it increases the activity of the brain's GABA receptors, dropping blood pressure, slowing the heart and bringing the user into a state of "deep relaxation"; it also leads to vastly-decreased motor skills.


The Quaalude Days

As a result of its potency at getting people off-their-face high, Quaaludes became rampantly abused in the late '70s and '80s. Second only to marijuana as a recreational drug of choice, it was allegedly available for around £1-4 per pill on the street. Prescription abuse became rampant, and so did counterfeit 'ludes being shipped into the US from South America. In 1980, just 30 million legal Quaaludes were produced by the manufacturer; the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reckoned that in the same year, 40 million fake 'ludes hit the streets.

As a party drug, it was wildly popular: 'luding out', or combining Quaaludes and booze to experience a whole new kind of lying-on-the-floor-giggling, was popular among college students; rock 'n roll also took a shine to it, with the front singer of The Tubes calling his onstage persona 'Quay Lewd'.

Of course, the good times can only roll for so long: in response to the abuse and the poor public image of Quaaludes, the Lemmon Company (by then the manufacturer) sold off the rights in the early 1980s, and the DEA banned production in 1984.


VIPs Only

Cutting off the supply of Quaaludes destroyed most of the demand for the previously super-cheap drug, but that still left a small subset of super-rich playboys willing to shell out. Enter Jordan Belfort and his stock-selling buddies: around the turn of the millenium, small numbers of Quaaludes were still availble on the black market -- leftover stock at vastly-inflated prices. How bad? Well, Belfort apparently paid about £800 per pill for a bottle of 20 '81 vintage Quaaludes.

Nowadays, Quaaludes are pretty much impossible to get -- according to reports, all the back supply has been used up, leaving the market mostly to dodgy internet chemists. For the particularly die-hard, Madrax, another methaqualone-containing sedative, is apparently still available in South Africa, and generic methaqualone is still available on prescription in Canada. For everyone else, complicated, dangerous and downright sketchy DIY instructions off the 'net will just have to do.

Image Credit: The Wolf of Wall Street / Paramount Pictures