Benzodiazepines are a class of prescription drugs commonly called tranquilizers. They include drugs like Valium, Librium, and Xanax. They find use in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks.
Because benzodiazepines are relatively safe when used properly, physicians feel comfortable prescribing them, even when the doctor is not specifically trained in psychiatric disorders. Patients also tend to view these drugs differently than ‘street drugs’ and may not realize the potential for addiction.
Another consequence of their generally safe record is that patients may be told to take them ‘as needed’. While this works well when insomnia or anxiety is intermittent, it opens the door to unregulated use and benzodiazepine dependence. It is also known that benzodiazepines are often diverted from legitimate use into illegal possession and abuse by those who do not have a prescription. Notably, the elderly may not miss a few pills or even many that are missing from an unguarded medicine cabinet.
Dangers of Benzodiazepine Addiction
The danger of benzodiazepine abuse usually doesn’t come from overdosing on the drug itself, but rather from either the effects of the drug or a combination of a benzodiazepine with alcohol or antihistamines. One of the problems with these agents is confusion and short-term memory loss. Particularly dangerous is someone who is under the effects and drives, or adds drinking to the situation.
Benzodiazepines have been used as date rape drugs. By slipping drugs into a flavored drink that hides the taste, sexual predators hope to make their victims confused and cooperative. The loss of short-term memory (retrograde amnesia) means the victim may not even remember the crime later.
Another key danger with this class of compounds is the risk of seizure or delirium tremens when abruptly stopping the drug. This can occur when someone has become habituated to the drug and then cannot obtain more legally. Under a physician’s care, patients are weaned off these medications slowly, to avoid this, possibly fatal event.
photo by Patricia Yliniemi