Hamilton's Pharmacopeia (2011) s01e01 Episode Script

The Story of the South African Quaalude

[ Inhales deeply ]
[ Indistinct conversation ]
Hamilton: The smell of
burning methaqualone
brings me back to 2013
when I sat on this very couch,
in the company
of a gangster
[ Laughs ]
a dealer, and a few
white pipe enthusiasts.
I've been fascinated by
psychoactive drugs
my whole life.
I love to study their chemistry
and impact on society.
And my work has allowed me
to investigate extraordinary
substances around the world.
Yet there are still mysteries
that remain.
But it was here that I found
myself on the scent of a trail
that would lead me to one of the
most astonishing drug mysteries
I've ever encountered.
[ Indistinct conversation ]
This is the story of
the South African Quaalude.
[ Siren wails ]
Oh, ah, oh, ah,
oh, ah, oh, ah
I've always been fascinated
by methaqualone,
a drug that was once sold
in the United States
under the brand name Quaalude.
But it's a difficult drug
to research
because it's all
but disappeared,
with one notable exception --
South Africa.
I traveled there in 2013
because it's the last place
on Earth it's still used.
What I found transcended
the drug and its use.
Good to meet you.
My pleasure.
I learned the unique history of
the South African Quaalude
is inextricably linked to
a secret government program.
But I'll go into that later.
After my first visit in 2013,
I analyzed some samples
and was surprised to find
they contained
not only methaqualone,
but also diphenhydramine,
a combination that mimics
the original
pharmaceutical formulation sold
under the brand name Mandrax.
I was surprised
the manufacturers
had such dedication
to tradition.
Three years later,
I decided to return
to fully understand
the methaqualone
distributed on the streets.
I started in Soweto,
one of the first places
I encountered the drug.
What's going on?
Chilling right now.
Yeah, I'd like to see
the process you use.
Because Mandrax
is sold as a tablet,
it requires special preparation
to be smoked.
[ Glass shatters ]
First, a glass bottle
is broken at the neck
and stuffed with
a cotton filter.
The filter is covered
with a blanket of tobacco
and low-grade cannabis.
A Mandrax tablet is wrapped
in paper and chewed.
And the powder is transferred
into a bottle neck,
which is referred to
as a white pipe.
When methaqualone
is taken orally,
the user experiences
muscle relaxation
and a sense of
calm disinhibition.
But when the drug is smoked,
its rapid onset
and increased potency
produce a rushing euphoria,
and in high doses,
total loss of consciousness.
How do you feel right now?
The way the drug's
currently used in South Africa
would be unrecognizable to
the American users of the 1970s.
Americans recall Quaalude
with a rosy nostalgia,
a drug sold by
pharmaceutical companies
as a nonaddictive alternative
to barbiturates.
It was a relaxing drug,
a love drug,
that promoted dance
and uninhibited sexuality.
But it became too popular
for its own good,
and restrictions on sale
and prescription
were soon followed
by total prohibition
in the United States.
Prohibition rarely dissuades
drug use or manufacture,
but methaqualone
was a rare case.
The high dose required for users
to achieve a desirable effect
placed an extraordinary burden
on clandestine manufacturers,
who needed large quantities
of carefully watched
precursor chemicals in order
to turn a small profit.
Some people believe the enduring
popularity of methaqualone
in South Africa
is a result of trade sanctions
imposed on the apartheid regime,
which left the country
in a state of economic
and cultural isolation.
Others believe
it was a product
of secret
government experiments.
Have any of you all heard
of Wouter Basson?
Wouter Basson.
What is that?
It's a drug or a what?
He was a doctor.
Dr. Basson.
He was a doctor people
thought brought Mandrax
onto the street
in South Africa.
Never heard of him.
Never heard of him.
We are not following
the history of drugs.
We are just smoking.
Hamilton: If there's one name
to know in the history
of South African Mandrax,
it's Wouter Basson.
In 1999, Basson was put on trial
for his involvement
in a secret chemical
and biological warfare program
code-named "Project Coast."
Basson claims to have
weaponized street drugs
like MDMA, LSD,
and most prominently,
He planned to use these drugs
for crowd-control purposes
in the event of
an anti-apartheid uprising.
Yet the exact nature of
Basson's crowd-control technique
remains uncertain.
Thanks a lot.
I appreciate your time.
Nice meeting you.
It was great meeting you.
Thanks a lot.
[ Typing ]
"Dearest Wouter.
I am an American journalist
writing a story
about the dismissal
of your application
for a recusal hearing.
I think the charges against you
amount to little more
than a witch hunt,
and I'd like to write a story
that allows your
perspective on this case
to reach
the international media.
I had the pleasure of attending
a talk you gave in 2013
and was impressed by
the candor of your speech."
"When can we
schedule a time to meet?
Your admirer,
Hamilton Morris."
You think "your admirer"
is too much?
Your friend?
On the outskirts
of Johannesburg,
I met with Jenny Wild,
a human rights lawyer
who stood up against
the apartheid government
to expose the drug research
of Project Coast.
Wild: Project Coast was
a very large-ranging project.
It involved a question
of biochemical weapons,
it involved the reduction --
or strategies
to reduce the black population
of South Africa.
Probably the most serious
component, really.
And chemicals --
drugs, narcotics --
were deliberately synthesized
by the apartheid regime
in order to
incapacitate people,
the tragedy being that they were
doctors and medical people.
But, then again,
you must remember apartheid
really didn't have
any scruples at all
when it came to its survival.
And there were things that went
on in this country
during that time
that makes the Nazis, frankly,
appear like
a Sunday school picnic.
Beyond the weaponization
of methaqualone,
Project Coast scientists
claimed to have bred
super-wolf guard dogs,
kept black mambas
to poison political opponents,
and planned to administer
antifertility drugs
to black women under the guise
of vaccination.
When I started as an advocate,
I began to come into contact
with people who were
becoming Mandrax addicts.
Addicts went from null
to 850,000
over a very short
space of time
behind a barbed wire fence
of apartheid.
Mandrax abuse is
a way of life in Cape Flats,
a ghetto created by
the apartheid government
as a home for the so-called
"colored communities"
of greater Cape Town.
I traveled there
to meet with Baba,
a Mandrax dealer
I'd befriended in 2013.
How are you, my friend?
All right.
Hey. Good to see you.
It's nice I'm
meeting you again, man.
Is this the same place?
You had so many people here
smoking Mandrax.
Where was the window where
people would come through?
They're coming to buy
through the window.
That's the financial director
You don't do that anymore?
How you feeling?
Full of
Doing all right?
[ Humming ]
No, no, no, no.
Ha ha ha ha.
You see the smoke?
Faried: This is a good thing for
the heart, for everything.
For high blood,
for low blood.
Take the pain away.
I'm 63 now.
Hamilton: How do you feel?
Do you feel sleepy?
If they feel like this,
they want to smoke more.
They mustn't sleep.
They must smoke.
Hamilton: The user feels
an initial rush of intoxication
where their body goes slack,
and they may briefly
lose consciousness.
So you're coming here
every three years.
But they rapidly
regain their composure
and within minutes
are consuming more.
It's this combination of
rapid onset and short duration
that makes smoked methaqualone
so addictive.
Woman: Hamilton, you okay?
I'm good, yeah.
I think I'm getting a little bit
secondhand right now.
[ Laughs ]
I can see.
[ Groans ]
Thank you.
I appreciate that.
We're gonna go with some abalone
poachers later today, I think.
Do you think I should poach?
Why is it dangerous?
What, abalone?
What's dangerous.
What's dangerous?
Hamilton: A species
of South African abalone
known as Haliotis midae
has an iridescent shell
with a row of small holes,
though which water escapes
after aerating the gills.
The shell protects the gill
and viscera from most,
but not all,
marine predators.
This endangered species is
the most sought-after
marine delicacy
in the country.
As savage winds
blew over the Cape,
I traveled to a nearby
seafood restaurant
where I arranged a dinner
with a Mandrax boss
who might have some insight
into the unexpected connection
between this sea snail
and a discontinued
pharmaceutical hypnotic.
Man: Welcome to Panama Jack's.
I'll be your waiter
this evening.
What can I get you guys to eat?
I think we should
have the abalone.
Hamilton: Though this restaurant
caters to a niche market
for legally harvested abalone,
I'm here to learn about
the other side
of the abalone trade.
And then you get to take
the shell home as a souvenir.
What do you mean?
Oh, yes. Yes.
Do that first.
You want to lead the prayer?
Okay, all right.
Thank you, God,
for this tasty gastropod,
whose flesh is
very rare and endangered
but supposedly
very delicious.
And thank you for granting me
the opportunity
to speak with my new friend
over this tasty meal.
It is going to be very
enjoyable, I'm sure.
Thanks, amen.
But as I say
It's pretty good.
So I've read that Mandrax
is exchanged for abalone,
or that the precursor is
to manufacture Mandrax
or exchange for abalone.
Could you tell me about
that connection?
There you go,
there you go.
South African abalone is
rarely consumed domestically.
Instead, the snail is
exported to the world's
abalone consumption capital,
The delicate flavor and chewy
flesh of abalone
is considered a status symbol
and renowned for its supposed
aphrodisiacal properties.
The Chinese value
South Africa's abalone
as much as South Africans value
N-acetylanthranilic acid.
With each buyer possessing
a commodity that's inexpensive
in their respective countries,
a mutually beneficial
barter system emerges.
So I went to meet with the men
who rob South Africa's oceans
of their most
aphrodisiacal treat.
How you doing, my friend?
Good, how are you?
I am fine, my friend.
You're just in time,
my friend.
That's where you
put the abalone?
Yes, this is the one that
I put the abalone in.
Oh, wow.
Speed up.
Speed up, guys.
There we go.
Are we all set?
With widespread poverty
and few opportunities
for employment,
many citizens of Haut Bay
can't resist the urge
to plunder a precious shellfish
that grows right on
their doorstep.
Do you have any friends
that have died poaching abalone?
How do people die
poaching abalone?
What's the most amazing thing
you've seen underwater?
How many times have you
been to prison for abalone?
Seven times?
It's very dark.
[ Birds screeching ]
He's about to
get in the water.
He's hoping that he'll
find some abalone.
We'll see what happens.
Hamilton: Above the water
stood the lookout man.
Below, two divers on a quest
for the diamonds of the sea.
Haliotis midae is a
slow-growing creature
that requires a decade
to reach harvest size
and almost as long
to achieve sexual maturity.
In the wild,
it lives 30 years or longer
if it isn't
discovered by predators.
The night was a success.
[ Indistinct conversation ]
The poachers were able to
collect dozens of mature abalone
and returned home to celebrate.
Do you ever trade the abalone
directly for the Mandrax?
Yes, with a Chinese guy.
[ Inhaling deeply ]
Feeling relaxed?
[ Inhales ]
A combination of branding
and tradition
have ensured that Mandrax
is always sold in tablet form,
despite the fact that it's
far from ideal for smoking.
[ Laughter ]
Hamilton: I've seen people
collapse after smoking
five or six consecutive hits,
but that was only one hit.
It seems like some
really strong stuff.
You okay?
Yeah, I'm
You okay?
Where did you get cut?
Where did you
hit yourself?
[ Singing ]
Less than three minutes ago,
he was borderline unconscious,
bleeding on the ground.
Now he's singing and dancing
and seems completely fine.
I don't know if that's
a good thing or a bad thing.
I'm really curious
what's in these tablets
or how strong they are.
One goal is certainly to enter
a clandestine methaqualone lab.
I've always wanted to see how
these cooks create methaqualone.
Hamilton: Today is the day
that Nelson Mandela
was released from prison.
There are rumors that
Wouter Basson had attempted
to poison him with a substance
that would give him cancer
so that even after
he was released,
he would be unable to
cause the downfall
of the apartheid government.
So I imagine that
Wouter Basson is not actually
celebrating this day
that resulted in
the Truth and Reconciliation
which brought to light
all of the terrible crimes
and all of the unethical medical
and scientific research
he was conducting,
and I can imagine him
being annoyed
that I called him
on this national holiday.
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[ Beep ]
All right.
I'm glad I thought
anxiously about that
for an hour before doing it.
Because Wouter Basson isn't
returning my phone calls
or e-mails,
I'm unable to find the answers
I need for my investigation.
What happened to the two metric
tons of methaqualone
that were manufactured
for supposed crowd control?
I headed to the South African
History Archive
to see what information
I could dig
from the remaining documents
that have evaded destruction.
I think we're going to want a
lot of these digitized, as well.
The trial of Wouter Basson was
one of the most expensive trials
in the history of South Africa.
There are thousands
of pages of documents
dedicated to
investigating his crimes.
Even though it's in Afrikaans,
I can still make out
the names of so many poisons
in this writing.
Thallium in bottles,
VX, sarin,
capsules of sodium cyanide,
botulism in a beer can.
One baboon fetus.
There's evidence that a lot of
methaqualone was manufactured.
There's a lot of evidence
that would suggest
that it wasn't being used as
a conventional chemical weapon
or a crowd control device,
so I'm hoping to meet with
an analytical chemist
named Etienne Van Zyl
who is responsible for
analyzing the methaqualone
that was produced
under Project Coast.
Hi, Hamilton.
Pleased to meet you again.
Good to meet you.
Van Zyl:
You can either view Basson
as a soldier that fought
on a government instruction,
that he did utmost
to fulfill his mission.
His mission was to set up a
chemical and biological program.
But maybe
there was excesses.
Maybe he did things
for personal gain.
Again, it's -- it's not --
I cannot confirm that.
I've tested chemicals
that was seized
following the dismantling
of Project Coast.
As a young
forensic scientist in 1997,
I was called in
to test these substances.
I saw a lot of
brown cardboard drums
industrial-scale chemicals,
lots of it.
So I sampled the materials,
and I found out that the --
yes, these materials that were
present at a front lab
of the old government
of South Africa
could be used
to make methaqualone.
There were sufficient chemicals
to make at least
3.5 million tablets,
and the methaqualone
was one of the substances
that was manufactured with
the intention of crowd control.
Now, if you think about it,
how can you control an unruly
crowd with the methaqualone?
You cannot fly over them
and disseminate
the methaqualone over the crowd.
But possibly you can start by
getting the crowd
hooked on methaqualone.
And if they are
hooked on methaqualone,
that very same crowd
will become a more docile crowd.
And on top of that,
Project Coast wasn't
manufacturing methaqualone
in a capacity that seems
ideal for use
in the conventional
crowd-control sense.
They were pressing it
into tablets.
I cannot --
I cannot confirm on that.
I don't know if they made it
into tablets or not.
If it's manufactured
into tablets,
then it's manufactured
for abuse at street level.
Wouter Basson claims
to have developed a process
for producing weaponized
methaqualone tablets
that he would load into
grenades and mortars,
yet the idea of a grenade
carrying a payload of tablets
has left most scholars
of Project Coast confused,
unless the weaponized tablets
were intended
for human consumption.
Chandre Gould is a leading
authority on Project Coast,
and her book "Secrets and Lies"
is the definitive text
on the crimes and subsequent
trial of Wouter Basson.
There is a very strong
suggestion that
the Mandrax was put
into tablet form.
Now, obviously,
putting it into tablet form
isn't consistent with using it
for crowd-control reasons.
It's very difficult to know
either whether those tablets
made their way into
the black market at all,
whether they made
their way into the black market
in South Africa or elsewhere,
so there's no clear indication
of what happened to the Mandrax.
One of the characteristics
of the chemical and biological
weapons program
is, in fact, the amount of
freedom that Dr. Basson had
to decide what was done
and how it was done.
Plausible deniability
was built into
every aspect
of this program.
And I think that is one of
the things that's made it
so difficult
to unravel the truth.
Basson: It's very simple.
They must just show me
what I did wrong.
That's easy.
All they need to do is bring one
single case of anybody
that was either damaged
and/or hurt in this process,
and I live with it.
But nobody can do that.
I mean, it's been 20 years
that this is going on,
and there's not a single scratch
and/or blue mark and/or bruise
on anybody that
could be proven anyway,
so who did I damage and how?
Hamilton: Basson's
methaqualone experiments
are decades in the past,
yet Mandrax remains one of
the most widely used
synthetic drugs in South Africa.
In order to explain
this strange phenomenon,
I had to find
the people responsible
for manufacturing it --
the cooks.
Hamilton: On my last visit
to South Africa,
I went looking for
a Mandrax kingpin.
I started with
the street dealers
and then moved up the chain
to the street dealers' dealer.
Then played an aggressive
game of pool
with the dealers'
dealer's dealer,
then lost, then won.
Then lost again.
Then won.
Then finally was introduced
to a man who knew not only
how to sell Mandrax,
but how to make it.
Was the money.
Did you ever suspect
during that period
when you were first learning
about Mandrax distribution
that the government
could have been involved?
And assuming these guys
were part of
the apartheid government,
if that's what
you're suggesting --
That's interesting.
I started talking chemistry
with Mr. Basil,
and he invited me to
have a look at his operation,
even showing me some of
the chemicals and equipment
his cook would use
the following day.
Are these guys
scary kinds of people,
or is it like
a pretty calm business?
It's not calm.
Oh, they are. Oh.
I woke up at 6:00
the next morning,
prepared to see the lab
I'd been waiting for,
but instead was met with
an unforeseen obstacle.
So we came here to shoot inside
a clandestine methaqualone lab,
and even though
we've scheduled it
for a certain time,
they said that
the chemist wasn't ready
and instead they wanted us to
shoot a music video.
Understand that no man
because I am what I am
Hamilton: We've already shot
a bedroom scene.
Now we're shooting a scene
where we walk down
the street together,
singing the lyrics in unison.
Do you think we could do that
later tonight when it's dark,
or did you want to do it now,
or what is the, uh
I was -- I wanted to use
the elements of the people --
Oh, okay, I see.
Okay, so let's do it now.
Let's do it now.
[ Laughter ]
[ Engine revving ]
He wants to incorporate
this car skidding theme
into the music video,
and it's sort of a condition
for us to do this
before we can get into
the methaqualone lab,
Oh, man.
All right.
I was closing my jacket
so that if the car
bursts into flames,
that I might have
some protection.
[ Laughter ]
[ Indistinct conversation ]
[ Engine revs ]
[ Laughs ]
Hold on!
[ Engine revs ]
[ Tires squeal ]
[ Bang ]
Our tire just exploded.
It's really fun.
[ Crowd cheering ]
[ Honking horn ]
[ Clapping ]
[ Laughs ]
Like an amazing carnival ride.
I really enjoyed it.
I'd like to do it again.
Just when I began to expect
the lab was an elaborate ruse
to get a free music video,
I found myself
in the back of a truck
with was loaded
with one kilogram
of N-acetylanthranilic acid
and a liter of
the same precursors
that are illegally imported
and exchanged for abalone.
We're on our way
to the Mandrax lab.
The chemist is getting pH strips
to monitor the reaction,
and I guess once he has those,
it will be time
to start the synthesis.
Hamilton: We were secretly taken
to an undisclosed location
to finally see the lab.
Yeah, maybe, yeah.
You don't even --
you -- you don't have to
cover your whole face.
You can just do half
or something like that.
Man: Yeah?
Do you enjoy cooking it?
All right,
so show me how you do it.
And are you worried
about the fumes?
Should we get away from it now
while it's cooking?
You know that this is toxic,
the ortho-toluidine?
It's not good for you.
There was blood in your --
Blood in your urine?
You know it's -- you know it can
cause bladder cancer?
Bladder cancer.
Okay, no.
Though the mechanism
of the condensation
is yet to be firmly established,
it seems that inside the pot,
as the temperature climbs toward
200 degrees Celsius,
the reaction between
the near-equal molar quantities
of ortho-toluidine
and N-acetylanthranilic acid
begins with a carbonyl addition,
initiated by lone pair electrons
on the toluidine amine,
which generates
a zwitterionic intermediate
that, after a series
of proton transfers
from the ammonium cation
and carboxylic acid,
allows oxonium
to leave as water.
The water is removed by heat,
driving an otherwise-reversible
reaction forward,
and the amodine intermediate
a concerted cyclization,
producing the quinazolinone
after an additional
proton transfer
and the loss of
a second oxonium as water,
producing methaqualone.
The smell is very strong.
You can smell the
ortho-toluidine in the air.
The cook is currently
boiling off the water
before he transfers
the reaction mix into a tub.
Smells like ortho-toluidine,
which smells like
burning rubber,
which smells like cancer.
It's a cancery smell,
I'd say.
He's about to prepare
methaqualone freebase
with this bucket of
aqueous sodium hydroxide.
That's a smell I like.
Makes you itchy?
Do you ever smoke
the material yourself?
The cook just added
a concentrated
sodium hydroxide solution
to the crude reaction mixture
that's liberating
the methaqualone freebase
as well as
ortho-toluidine freebase,
and it's boiling
and it's a black tar.
What is the step
after this?
What comes after this?
To what?
Does this look good?
Are you happy with the way
it's going?
Something very interesting
just happened.
He had the crude
reaction mixture
of the hydrochloride salt.
He added aqueous
sodium hydroxide.
It was a paste.
There was some difficulty
mixing the two,
and almost spontaneously,
the mixture solidified
into a powder.
What pH do you
want it to be?
What is it now?
He's now filtering the
neutralized reaction mixture,
which is around pH seven,
through a pillowcase.
This is pH seven, right?
Is that a special pillowcase
you use?
[ Chuckles ]
Yeah, yeah.
Why is that?
Before you were
working this job,
did you have other jobs?
[ Chuckles ]
So you went from
stealing cars to
organic synthesis.
This is about 800 grams
of methaqualone freebase.
You filter the freebase
through a pillowcase.
Because it's insoluble
in water,
it remained in
the pillowcase
while all of
the other reactants --
I hope --
washed through the filter.
800 grams is 4,000 doses.
It's ready to be pressed
into tablets after it's dried.
As sodium N-acetyl anthranilate
wash down the drain
and up the great sewage ducts of
Soweto into the Indian Ocean
and across the gills
of what abalone remain
in the coastal waters
of South Africa,
I felt a sense of gratitude
for everything I'd learned
and a new-found appreciation
for the mysteries that remain.
Wouter Basson continues to
practice medicine with impunity
and has started a new career as
a motivational speaker.
The ruthlessness of it all
has never fully been exposed.
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