PCP, Quaaludes, Mescaline. What Became of Yesterday's "It" Drugs?
Once decried as threats to our civilization, they're now all but forgotten. How did they fall under the radar?
Like one-hit wonder pop stars or dissolute child actors from the '80s, recreational drugs tend to arrive on the scene with fanfare, do tremendous damage, and fizzle out when popular tastes move on to the Next Big Thing. Also, they all make perfect topics for “Where are they now” lists. Take an unsteady walk down memory lane with The Fix's highly subjective list of formerly popular drugs that have gone the way of Ralph Macchio.
Peak: The late ’60s and ’70s saw an explosion in the recreational use of the veterinary drug PCP, or angel dust, and an even bigger explosion in the media coverage about it. In 1978, People named phencyclidine America’s “most dangerous new drug.” At the height of its popularity, PCP was so sought after dealers would sell mescaline and LSD and tell people it was angel dust. Few noticed the difference.
Downfall: The unpleasant side effects—numbness and paranoia—that kept PCP from becoming the drug of choice for many likely contributed to its precipitous decline in the 1980s. While 13 percent of high school seniors reported trying PCP in 1979, only one percent did a decade later.
Where is it now? Like bell-bottoms, PCP is just no longer cool—but that doesn’t mean some misguided souls aren’t still partaking. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports that illegal production is now centered in Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., of all places, saw an unexplained uptick in PCP-related arrests earlier this year.
Peak: A pain medication with a similar chemical composition to methadone, Darvocet was many doctors' pain pill of choice in the last decade. In 2007 alone, 20 million prescriptions were written for Darvocet and Darvon, a version of the drug without the painkiller acetaminophen. But as much as doctors liked the drugs, health advocates hated them. The group Public Citizen started fighting them as early as 1978 because the pills were "not very effective," "somewhat addictive," and "toxic at doses much higher than the recommended dose." It was so toxic in fact, right-to-die groups adopted it as the preferred method of assisted suicide.
Downfall: In 2010, the FDA asked that Darvon and Darvocet be pulled from shelves, and the manufacturers complied. It had nothing to do with the drug's long record of abuse, though. Instead it was clinical data showing a “risk of potentially serious or even fatal heart rhythms” that led to the recall.
Where is it now? Though it's been pulled from the market, a quick Google of "Buy Darvocet" turns up plenty of websites that will sell you the medicine. The identity theft is thrown in for free.
Peak: This barbiturate was first introduced in the late 1940s, but took off, especially with celebrities, in the 1960s and stayed en vogue up into the '80s. The sedative’s colorful casing earned it some deceptively innocuous nicknames, including “Christmas trees,” “rainbows,” and “beans.” While it’s highly effective at treating insomnia, it creates dependency and often causes overdose. Just like tight pants, it was a favorite among rock legends like Sid Vicious, Joey Ramone and Keith Richards.
Downfall: Eli Lilly eventually suspended production of Tuinal as barbiturate prescriptions declined. With its market share reduced, prescriptions for Tuinal precipitiously dipped as well.
Where is it now? Barbiturates as heavy as Tuinal are mainly used in anesthesia or to treat epilepsy.
Peak: Trippy mid-century authors like Hunter S. Thompson and Aldous Huxley popularized the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, a chemical product of cacti that Native American tribes started taking 3,000 years earlier. Users who don’t mind the bitter taste of cactus can chomp on the drug in its pure form: peyote. Modern users, though, prefer to grind the plant into a powder and put it in capsules to experience the LSD-like hallucinations it produces. As poet Allen Ginsberg described the experience, “my skin and all the room seem sparkling with scales, and it’s all made out of serpent stuff.”
Downfall: Natural and synthetic mescaline was criminalized in 1970 with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which said it had “a high potential for abuse” but “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” The following year it was banned internationally by the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. (The Native American Church, however, is exempt for religious reasons.)
Where is it now? Most likely in a tasteful and easy-to-care for cactus garden. Or in Canada, where it's legal to grow peyote without fear of prosecution.
Peak: Like Tuinal, Secanol was prescribed to treat insomnia. Its misuse in the 1960s and ’70s sent many into a permanent sleep, including Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, and probably Tennessee Williams. The brand name drug for Secobarbital sodium, Seconal earned nicknames like “red,” “red devils,” and, less commonly, “dolls,” which is why Jacqueline Susann named her 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls.
Downfall: As gentler benzodiazepines began to replace barbiturates for insomnia relief in the 1970s, Seconal fell out of favor.
Where is it now? For years, Secobarbital has been the go-to drug for assisted suicide in Oregon. It is also used in large doses to put down horses and cattle.
Peak: Considering one of Quaaludes' most commonly used nicknames was "disco biscuits," it should come as no surprise that 'ludes were at the height of their popularity in the '70s. Prescribed as a sedative and to treat insomnia, the little white pills became prized recreational drugs once people found out they both lowered inhibition and increased physical sensitivity. By the mid-70s around four million Quaalude prescriptions were written each year and juice bars with names like the Inferno and Fudge Factory started popping up in New York so people could dance and pop 'ludes together.
Downfall: Congressional action led to the death of the disco biscuit. In 1973, 'ludes were categorized as a Schedule II drug and in 1984 they were bumped up to Schedule I. That essentially eliminated production and by 1985 the DEA no longer considered it a top 20 controlled substance.
Where is it now? No longer a problem in the U.S., Quaaludes have found a home in South Africa where the drug goes by the name Mandrax. In its most popular form, crushed up tablets are mixed with marijuana and smoked. According to some reports, Mandrax is by far the most popular drug in South Africa, accounting for up 60% of the drugs seized on the country's street.
Peak: The dirty, destructive scourge of huffing glue has been a means to an instantaneous high for generations of Americans and Europeans, but it really hit its zenith from the mid-'70s through the mid-'90s, spurred by easy availability and a punk culture looking for DIY highs. A British sociology textbook from 1991 explains, “Sniffing was adopted by punks because public perceptions of sniffing fitted in with their self-image. Originally used experimentally and as a cheap high, adult disgust and hostility encouraged punks to use glue sniffing as a way of shocking society.” Hence the Ramones song, “Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue.”
Downfall: In the mid-90s, about 20 percent of kids admitted to trying inhalants like glue by the 8th grade; today that number hovers below 10 percent. This drop is largely credited to an anti-inhalant campaign by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (and this guy).
Where is it now? Look to the developing world to see the effects of present day glue-sniffing. In recent years, horrifying reports have come out about the damaging glue addictions of street children in countries including Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan. For them, glue isn’t just a high but an opportunity to stave off hunger pangs and cold temperatures.
Peak: Invented in 1887, speed didn’t hit the big time until World War II, when the US Army and other militaries around the world start pumping soldiers full of the drug to keep them alert. Military vets brought amphetamines back to the states, and its use quickly spread. They became particularly popular with baseball players, who called the pills "greenies," and truck drivers. In 1965, the drug was limited to medical use.
Downfall: A series of laws restricting the use of amphetamines eventually led to a decrease in use. In 1971 they were classified as a Schedule II drug, then in 1982 Ronald Reagan signed an executive order mandating drug tests for truck drivers. Finally, in 2006, Major League Baseball banned them.
Where is it now? It's actually still around, but under different names—and in more sophisticated forms. For instance, Adderall, used by as much as 25% of the country’s college students to enhance concentration, is an amphetamine so popular it's prone to nationwide shortages. “Go pills,” used by Air Force pilots on long missions, are also still prevalent. But today the most common form of amphetamines is simply called meth.
9. AMYL NITRATE
Peak: Amyl nitrates, or "poppers," are known to enhance sexual pleasure by causing smooth muscles (sphincter, vagina, etc.) to relax. A 1978 Time article traces the popularity of poppers to gay men who quickly passed the drug along to "avant-garde heterosexuals." By 1987, three percent of the American population was inhaling poppers.
Downfall: Though poppers had a bit of a moment during the 90s rave scene, a government crackdown proved to be a party killer. The harder it was to get your hands on the tiny amber bottles, the less popular they became. The spurious connection made between amyl nitrates and AIDS didn't much help the poppers craze.
Where is it now? Poppers can still be found with relative ease today if you’re in the right place. They’re still legal in the UK, Poland and China. Not to mention the Castro, Santa Monica Boulevard and Chelsea. Thanks to the internet and crafty sellers who label poppers with names like "video head-cleaning fluid" and “room aromas,” anyone who wants to risk this sort of chemically enhanced sex can do so easily.
Peak: The use of opium goes all the way back to the Neolithic Age (that’s like 9500 BC). The drug didn’t really take off recreationally though until 18th century China. Opium was so popular that the contentious trade between the Chinese and colonial British led to two wars in 1839 and 1858. Over that time the Chinese continued to love their opium and by 1905 a quarter of the male population was getting high off of it. As Chinese immigrants made their way to America they brought opium with them. But racism helped keep the drug from becoming popular with white Americans who stigmatized Chinese opium dens.
Downfall: In the early 20th century laws against opium spread throughout the world. In the U.S. legal use of opium was first confined to dens and then negative attitudes toward Chinese immigrants led to full-scale criminalization.
Where is it now? Despite the efforts of the Taliban to stop opium production in Afghanistan, the country is now the world’s largest producer of the drug, churning out three-quarters of the world’s supply. Meanwhile, cultivation is surging in countries like Burma and Loas, despite government eradication campaigns.