A nationwide study has just been released showing that admissions for treatment of benzodiazepine abuse nearly tripled from 1998 to 2008 among people 12 years of age and older.

Benzodiazepines, a family of drugs affecting the central nervous system, are used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizure disorders. They are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States, classified as depressants by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. They include Valium, Ativan, Xanax, Librium and Halcion. Abuse can result in dependency, injury and even death.

The study was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal agency focusing on drug abuse and mental illnesses in the United States. Established in 1992, the organization functions under the direction of Congress, allocating grants for mental health programs and substance-abuse prevention, treatment and support services.

SAMHSA's research revealed that admissions for treatment of benzodiazepines abuse rose from 22,400 in 1998 to about 60,200 in 2008, despite the overall admissions for substance abuse in that same period rising only 11%. While these admissions represented only 3.2% of all drug-abuse admissions during the ten-year study period, they had only comprised 1.3% in 1998.

Common Characteristics of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Most patients admitted for benzodiazepine-abuse treatment were white, non-Hispanic men, with 55.3% between 18 and 34 years old.

Data also showed that 95% of the benzodiazepine-related admissions involved abuse of other drugs, with opiates, such as heroin and Oxycontin, representing the primary abused substance 54.2% of the time. This was evident in all age groups except among adolescents and people over 45. Marijuana and alcohol use were reported as the primary abuse substances in those age groups, respectively.

Marketed in the late 1950's to replace barbiturates, there are fifteen forms of benzodiazepines in the United States and an additional 20 in other countries. Flunitrazepam is one of those not available in the US, though it has been illegally smuggled by traffickers. Known as “roofies" in slang, it became popular in the mid 1990s as a date-rape drug that perpetrators secretly dropped into alcoholic beverages of unsuspecting victims. Debilitated and disoriented, victims unknowingly became easy prey, afterwards often lacking clarity about the details of the assault.

People Using Xanax to Get High

Recreationally, benzodiazepines produce effects similar to alcohol intoxication, with users experiencing a loss of inhibition and impaired judgment. They are also taken by stimulant abusers to counteract side effects and by opioid abusers to treat symptoms of withdrawal. Benzodiazepines increase the likelihood of risky behaviors and are associated with blackouts, memory loss, and auto accidents.

Benzodiazepines are generally prescribed in pill form, with a few also available intravenously. They increase the activity of the brain neurotransmitter known as gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) that is responsible for inhibiting neural activity. The drugs may be given in varying doses depending on the condition being treated and the patient's history of drug tolerance and potential for addiction.

Learn How to Use, Not Abuse

Low to moderate doses are prescribed in the treatment of anxiety and tension to calm and relax patients. Withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and death, can occur when suddenly discontinued, prompting physicians to gradually wean patients off them when they no longer require them. Effective when used under medical supervision, their sedative powers unfortunately also make them a common ingredient in recreational drug cocktails.

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Vanessa E. Ford, LCSW, CADC
Sigal Sharf, MS
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Catherine Pittman, Ph.D, HSSP


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