Methaqualone: Legal consequences

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 12:51 pm

Legal history

When methaqualone first entered the U.S. market in the mid-sixties, it was classified as a Schedule V drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Schedule V drugs are considered the least dangerous and addictive of prescription medications and require only a doctor’s prescription for access.
As the abuse of methaqualone increased, the DEA took action to limit access, changing the drug to a Schedule II substance in 1973. Schedule II drugs are those that are potentially dangerous with a high risk of psychological and physical addiction, but still can be medically beneficial if administered under a physician’s care. They require a doctor’s written prescription and cannot be refilled without additional prescriptions. Schedule II drugs also have stringent legal standards for manufacturer-to-pharmacy distribution, storage, and record-keeping.
Despite the reclassification of methaqualone to Schedule II, the use and abuse of the drug soared throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. Legitimate use for the drug rapidly decreased with the new classification. By 1982, Lemmon Company, the only remaining U.S. manufacturer of the drug, reported that prescriptions written for Quaaludes had dropped from a high of four million in 1973 to less than 300,000, a decline of over 90%.
In 1983, Congress began hearing testimony on a proposal to reclassify methaqualone to a Schedule I controlled substance. Schedule I drugs are those that are highly addictive and dangerous and have no recognized medical value. But because the drug was still manufactured and prescribed in the United States, which seemed to meet the Schedule II criteria of providing some therapeutic value, the FDA and DEA were reluctant to move the drug to Schedule I.
In the meantime, parts of the country such as Miami and Atlanta experienced an explosion of methaqualone abuse and began legislating against the drug on a state level. By 1984, nine states with growing methaqualone problems including Florida, Georgia, and Illinois had banned the sale of the drug.
Citing increasing political pressures and negative publicity surrounding Quaaludes, the Lemmon Company halted production and distribution of the drug as of January 31, 1984. With the final remaining obstacle to reclassification removed, Congress changed methaqualone to a Schedule I controlled substance in August of 1984, effectively outlawing the drug in the United States.
Statistically, however, legal sources of methaqualone had only been a fraction of the total Quaalude supply in the United States. In 2001, the DEA estimated the illicit, or counterfeit, production of the drug at 150 metric tons annually in the early 1980s, over 20 times the amount of legitimate methaqualone produced worldwide.
In the early 1980s, Colombia was a flourishing center of methaqualone counterfeiting. Operation Sword-fish, a DEA investigation targeting organized drug crime in Miami, resulted in the seizure of 250,000 methaqualone pills in addition to large quantities of marijuana, cocaine, and cash and put a major dent into Miami’s flourishing drug trade. After methaqualone was moved to Schedule I, the DEA, the Department of State, and U.S. Customs worked with agencies in foreign countries producing the drug to control the export of methaqualone and its precursor chemicals.
Today, South Africa is both the world’s largest producer and consumer of methqualone in the form of counterfeit Mandrax. The country also serves as a drug gateway between southern Asia and the United States. A report by the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) points out that part of the Mandrax problem is that vast quantities of the legal chemicals used to produce methaqualone are produced in southern Asia and are not adequately regulated. Illegal methaqualone production is also starting to spread to surrounding areas of Africa, including Kenya, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia.
In 1999 and 2000, South Africa signed agreements with the United States that provided anti-drug crime assistance. The South African Narcotics Bureau (S ANAB) has worked extensively with the United States DEA and the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) to stop narcotics production and trafficking in the region. The relationship has meant an increase in methaqualone-related arrests. In November and December of 2001, 5.8 tons of methaqualone and Mandrax powder were seized from drug manufacturing operations in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. The December raid alone, which represented 3.3 tons, had a street value of 550 million rand ($49.05 million USD) and was the largest seizure to date by South African authorities. In January 2002, South African police confiscated 1.5 million Mandrax tablets worth an estimated 1.5 million rand ($133,779.00 USD).

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

A conviction of methaqualone possession in the United States is a federal offense that can carry serious consequences. If the amount of methaqualone is small, it is classified by DEA as a “personal use amount” under the Controlled Substances Act of 1988. Anyone charged with his or her first offense of possessing a personal use amount faces a civil fine of up to $10,000. The fine amount is based on the offender’s income and assets and the circumstances surrounding the case. With first offenses, jail time is typically not involved, and the proceedings are civil rather than criminal. This means that if the offender pays the fine, stays out of trouble for a three-year period, and passes a drug test, the case is dismissed and no criminal or civil record is made.
Anyone convicted of methaqualone trafficking (transporting or dealing the drug) faces significantly harsher penalties. Federal guidelines mandate that a first-time trafficking offender face up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. If death or serious injury is involved with the trafficking charge, the sentence must be at least 20 years with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Methaqualone was designated a Class B drug in the United Kingdom under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. As such, possession carries a penalty of three months to five years imprisonment, and trafficking carries a sentence of six months to 14 years. A fine may also be imposed.

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