Barbiturates / Benzodiazepines
Barbiturates are part of a class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics. They are “downers”- central nervous system depressants. Barbiturates were very popular in the 60’s and 70’s and were mostly abused to reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions, and treat unwanted effects of illicit drugs.
Benzodiazepines are a class of drug which is commonly used in a number of medical settings. Most commonly used as anti-anxiety medications, benzodiazepines are also used as sedatives, as anticonvulsant medications, and as muscle relaxants. Benzodiazepines are relatively safe and well-tolerated in the short term.
Barbiturates / Benzodiazepines: History
Barbiturates are very dangerous, and have a high potential for overdose, particularly when mixed with alcohol and other drugs. They are also highly addictive and have potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. For these reasons, barbiturates have fallen out of favor with the medical community, and are only very rarely used for medical purposes. Benzodiazepines have largely replaced barbiturates in medical settings. They are really only used in general anesthesia, for epilepsy, and for assisted suicide.
Predictably, the rates of barbiturate abuse have declined dramatically since these medications have been either pulled off the market or are just not prescribed anymore. The exception is possibly high school students. A new study suggests that the rate of abuse among high school students may have risen slightly in the last ten years. Barbiturates are abused commonly to counteract the effects of other drugs (i.e. to come down from uppers like cocaine and methamphetamine) or in suicide attempts. The reason barbiturates are used so often in suicide attempts is that there is no direct antidote to barbiturates. Overdose can only be treated by supportive measures, which is another reason that barbiturates are so dangerous.
Barbiturates / Benzodiazepines: How they work
Benzodiazepines work by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. The enhancement is responsible for producing the therapeutic effects of benzodiazepines and for facilitating many of the side effects as well as dependence and withdrawal from these drugs. Other sedative-hypnotics, such as alcohol and barbiturates, have a similar enhancing effect on GABA. This is why benzodiazepines are often used to treat alcohol withdrawal. It is also the reason that mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol or barbiturates can be deadly.
Barbiturates / Benzodiazepines: Side effects
Barbiturates and benzodiazepines decrease brain activity causing the person to feel more calm, drowsy, and/or peaceful. Because they have similar action as alcohol, the symptoms of barbiturate/benzodiazepine intoxication are similar to being drunk. In smaller doses, a person feels drowsy and uninhibited. In larger doses, barbiturates/benzodiazepines result in staggering, slurred speech, and confusion.
Common side effects of barbiturates/benzodiazepines include: drowsiness, dizziness, decreased alertness/concentration, depression, hypotension (low blood pressure), decreased libido, nausea, changes in appetite, euphoria, and nightmares.
Barbiturates / Benzodiazepines: Date Rape
Barbiturates /benzodiazepines have also been used as a “date rape” drug because they can markedly impair functions that normally allow a person to resist sexual aggression or assault. Also, barbiturates/benzodiazepines commonly cause drug induced short term amnesia, especially when mixed with alcohol. These properties make barbiturates/benzodiazepines effective in drug-facilitated sexual assaults.