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Quaaludes: Drug behind Cosby allegations an icon of '70s

By RACHEL STERN

Published July 16, 2015

“It got taken off the American market before truly widespread problems were reported, and that is why people tend to remember it with a sense of nostalgia.”
David Herzberg, associate professor
Department of History

Bill Cosby has put Quaaludes back in the spotlight after court documents revealed the comedian admitted he obtained the drug to use on women.

It’s not surprising the media and the public are so interested in the drug, says David Herzberg, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, who’s working on a book about the history of prescription drug abuse.

Synonymous with the disco era of the 1970s, the drug is a sedative with a distinctive, mysterious reputation, he says.

“If you do the mental arithmetic, for the baby-boom generation, it was very lightly regulated and for most of its time in the U.S. wasn’t recognized as addictive so doctors could prescribe as much as they wanted,” Herzberg says. “Companies claimed it was a safe alternative to other sedatives and for rebellious youth it didn’t have other pills’ reputation of being a boring drug your parents used; instead, it had a reputation as a love-making drug. This created a perfect storm of popularity.”

Quaaludes were widely available in America from 1965 to 1973, when it was added to the Schedule of Controlled Substances. The new restrictions were not too stringent, however, so the drug remained available until 1983, Herzberg says, when it then became illegal. The drug relaxes people and makes them less anxious, he says.

“At the height of its popularity during the 1970s, many young people saw recreational drug use as a rebellious political act in which they were rejecting adults’ vision of a good life, so in some cases they were really loud and in your face about it because they saw it as a virtuous act,” Herzberg says. “This kind of highly visible, non-medical use was what led to restrictions in 1973.”

Then, in 1983, the drug disappeared.

“It got taken off the American market before truly widespread problems were reported, and that is why people tend to remember it with a sense of nostalgia because it was made illegal before major tragedy was reported around its use. It just kind of vanished,” he says.

Though people remember it with nostalgia, Herzberg says the Cosby allegations remind us that drugs by prescription are still drugs, with all their attendant risks. Similar problems today can be found with prescription narcotics like OxyContin, Xanax and Adderall, he notes.