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the quaalude lesson

At one time, the sleeping pill Quaalude was as big a problem in the United States as heroin and cocaine. But then, in a matter of just a few years, it disappeared. If the successful strategy the DEA pursued in cracking down on Quaaludes had been followed when meth surfaced a few years later, experts say it is unlikely the meth epidemic would ever have happened.

During the 1970s Quaalude became a widely abused sleeping pill. The key chemical needed to make Quaalude was methaqualone, first developed in India in the 1950s as an anti-malarial drug. By the mid-60s, U.S. doctors began prescribing Quaalude as a non-addictive alternative to barbiturates.

However, by the late '70s, illegal use of the drug had surged, especially among teenagers. Users would "'lude out," combining the drug with alcohol to achieve a drunken, sleepy high. Overuse could lead to respiratory arrest, delirium, kidney or liver damage, coma, and death. As the abuse reached its peak, it was linked to overdoses, suicide attempts, injuries, and car accidents.

The drug supply came from legitimately-manufactured pills diverted into the illegal drug trade and from counterfeit pills coming from South America and illegal labs within the United States. By 1981, the DEA ranked Quaalude use second only to marijuana and estimated that 80 to 90 percent of world production went into the illegal drug trade. Stress clinics, where customers paid about $100 cash for a Quaalude prescription from a licensed physician, became popular in urban areas. The DEA estimated that the 20 million pills on the street in 1980 would double in just a year and match heroin's popularity.

And yet, within just a few years, the DEA got the problem of Quaalude abuse under control. By 1984, Quaaludes had all but disappeared from the U.S. marketplace.

Gene Haislip, the DEA's number three man at the time, was the idea man behind shutting down Quaaludes. He came up with the solution to go after Quaaludes at their source: the chemical manufacturers of methaqualone powder in West Germany, Austria, Hungary, and China. Haislip traveled around the world, convincing the government of every country with a factory that made the chemical to shut down its trade. "Well, it took some time, but in the end, the Colombians could no longer get their drug powder," Haislip tells FRONTLINE. "They didn't know what to do. They gave it up. We eliminated the problem. We beat them."

Separately, doctors had already started turning to other alternatives to treat insomnia because the sleeping pill carried the stigma of an abused drug. Finally, Congress banned domestic production and sales of the prescription version of Quaalude, which was made by just one company, and President Reagan signed the legislation into law in 1984.

Just like Quaaludes, the key ingredients in methamphetamine are so chemically sophisticated that they can only be made by a few large manufacturers. When meth abuse started appearing on the West Coast in the mid-80s, Haislip and his colleagues at the DEA were confident that with a new chemical control law for meth's key ingredients, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, meth too would be beaten. But they were wrong.

| See a timeline of why and how meth spiraled out of control.

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posted feb. 14, 2006

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