The revelation this week that Bill Cosby admitted under oath to buying quaaludes to give to young women to have sex rocked the entertainment world and added fuel to the allegations that the comedian had drugged and sexually assaulted several women. But it also raised the question: Why would Cosby, who had the ability to hire the best legal counsel money could buy, make such a damning admission in the first place?
It turns out that Cosby's disclosure about the quaaludes—which came during a 2005 deposition— may not have been as legally explosive then as it appears now.
Benjamin Brafman, a prominent New York criminal defense attorney, who does not represent Cosby, said the partial transcript of the deposition released by the Associated Press does not show that Cosby violated a law. Cosby apparently obtained quaaludes through a prescription, the AP reported.
In the deposition, which stemmed from a sexual abuse case against Cosby filed by a former Temple University employee, Cosby was asked by a lawyer, "When you got the quaaludes [in the 1970s], was it in your mind that you were going to use these quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?" Cosby answered, "Yes."
Brafman said the transcript is damaging to Cosby and "will haunt him for the rest of his life," but it does not show that he committed a crime.
"There is no acknowledgement that he gave the quaalude to someone underage, or to a woman who wasn't consenting," Brafman told TIME. "Quaalude was the love drug of choice in those years. Doctors were lawfully prescribing it in those years."
Brafman pointed out that Cosby could have been court-ordered to give the deposition, and it would have been worse if he had lied under oath.
"You don’t know what prompted the lawyer to ask the question," Brafman said. "They may have had copies of prescriptions or testimony of doctors. For Cosby, making the admission under oath, even though it is damaging, it is preferable to perjury."
Brafman added: "From a public relations standpoint, it is a disaster, but I'm not sure it necessarily advances the ball in terms of any legal proceedings."
But lawyers representing women who say Cosby sexually assaulted them disagree, saying Cosby's admission adds weight to their accusations. "The women have been saying they've been drugged and abused, and these documents appear to support the allegations," lawyer Joe Cammarata, who represents Therese Serignese, one of the women who says she was sexually assaulted by Cosby, told the AP.
Quaaludes, the brand name for methaqualone, were a popular sleeping pill in the 1960s and were used in the 1970s and '80s as a club drug, particularly to help people come off of a cocaine high. In 1973, they were classified as a Schedule 11 federal narcotic, which means doctors could still prescribe quaaludes but it was illegal to abuse them (Adderall is a Schedule 11 drug today). In 1984 President Ronald Reagan signed a law banning the production of the drug, making it illegal. Cosby's admission concerns a period during the 1970s, when quaaludes would have been legal with a prescription.
Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University and the author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, who spoke generally about the use of quaaludes in the '70s and not specifically about how Bill Cosby may have used them, said that drug was indeed believed to be an aphrodisiac that consenting adults could use to have sex. "Quaaludes were something that was meant to send you to sleep," Jenkins told TIME. "But it was also supposed to be the world’s greatest aphrodisiac. It was meant to knock you out, but also give you an overpowering sense of sexual urge."
In 1980, Shel Silverstein, the children's book author, penned a song popular in the era's dorm rooms called "Quaaludes Again," featuring a stanza about the sexual urges Quaaludes elicited:
She's doin' quaaludes again.
She fumbles and stumbles
And falls down the stairs,
Makes love to the leg of the dining room chair.
She's ready for animals, women or men.
She's doin' quaaludes again.
But Jenkins cautioned that though quaaludes could be used to enhance sex, just like ecstasy in a later era, they have also played a role in sexual assaults against women. Director Roman Polanski was accused of giving a 13-year-old quaaludes and champagne before raping her in the late 1970s, according to the accuser's account.
In the deposition, the question of how Cosby used the quaaludes goes unanswered.
"Did you ever give any of those young women the quaaludes without their knowledge?" Cosby was asked.
Before Cosby could respond, his lawyer intervened, saying, "Object to the question."