Thought barbiturates went out of style in the 1970’s? Think again. Statistics show that they still kill around 400 people every year. I’m a lifelong music nerd, so barbiturate overdose is something I’ve been familiar with for a long time. After all, some of the greatest musicians ever died by OD’ing on the stuff. Jimi Hendrix died that way. Janis Joplin…same thing. Even Elvis Presley’s death is believed to be barbiturate-related in some way. What I didn’t realize, though, is that people are still taking them. I’ve spent a lot of time in drug circles, too. But not once have I ever encountered someone who was hooked on Amytal or Butisol. I’ve never heard someone say, “Man, I’m really craving some Luminal right now.” It just never happened. Honestly, I thought that this class of sleeping pills died with disco. That’s why I was so surprised to learn that hundreds of people still OD on barbiturates every year. Even stranger, they’re prescribed at a rate of 19 million prescriptions per year. It didn’t make any sense to me, so I set out to learn a little bit about the drug.
Here’s What I Can Tell You About Barbiturate Overdoses
The first thing I learned is that it’s not spelled ‘barbiturates’ (lol). I must have typed ‘barbiturates’ into my Google search bar about 50 times before that finally registered (that extra ‘r’ isn’t really apparent when you say the word out loud). I also learned from my dad (who spent his share of time around addicts in the 60s and 70s) that these were one of the most popular drugs in America back then. He says that the drugs used to go by the street names “blockbusters” and “goofballs”. “I used to call them ‘Christmas trees’,” he says, “because they were green and kind of triangular.” Apparently, they were quite popular, too, and not just among celebrities. They were a readily available over-the-counter drug. A lot of people used them. In New York alone, there were nearly 8,500 overdoses between the years of 1957 and 1963. More than 25 million people received a prescription every year, despite its risk of abuse and overdose. At the time, these drugs were considered to be the biggest prescription pill problem in America. They were essentially the drug crisis of my father’s generation. So why did their popularity decrease over time? Why is it so rare to hear about barbiturate addiction these days? Well, they were basically replaced by another, now very popular, class of drugs: benzodiazepines.
From Barbs to Benzos
In order to understand why benzos came in and took their place, it helps to understand what barbiturates are, what they do and how they work. I was surprised to learn, for example, that they weren’t exclusively used as sleeping pills. Part of the reason that they were so widely prescribed in the mid-to-late 1900s is that they had numerous sedative effects. They were used as anti-anxiety meds far before drugs like Lexapro or Xanax. They also have anticonvulsant effects and, thus, are used to treat people with epilepsy. The problem, of course, is that they’re very addictive. Their sedative effects lasted anywhere from 3-5 days, making them very appealing to the laid-back culture of the 60s and 70s. As a result, researchers aimed to create a similar drug with a lower risk of abuse. And this is how we ended up with benzodiazepines. Librium and Valium appeared on the market in the early 60s. Doctors believed that these drugs would bring an end to the barbiturate overdose problem of the time. Today, of course, we know that it didn’t work out that way (drugs like Xanax and Valium are leading causes of addiction). But that’s why we tend to see far less barbiturate abuse than we used to.
Barbiturates vs Benzodiazepines: A Comparison
So how do these drugs compare to one another? Are they really all that different? In some ways, no. They are both depressants. They’re both used to treat conditions like insomnia, anxiety, and epilepsy. They’re both highly addictive and carry a high risk of abuse. They’re also both very helpful classes of drugs when used responsibly. Roughly just as many people are taking benzos today as there were people taking barbiturates 50 years ago. These drugs help a lot of people to manage their anxiety. However, they can both have fatal consequences when abused. The biggest difference between benzodiazepines and barbiturates is in their mechanism of action.
How do these drugs work?
Both of these drugs work by binding to the GABA receptors in our brain. For those of who are unfamiliar, GABA is a chemical that our bodies produce to regulate our mood. It helps us to keep calm during situations that might otherwise produce anxiety. If you’re put into a fight-or-flight situation, for example, your body produces a bunch of GABA. The chemical binds to the appropriate receptors in your brain to help you stay cool and think more clearly about whether to stick around or run for the hills. When your body is unable to produce sufficient amounts of GABA, you’ll find yourself anxious all of the time. Even the most mundane activities can feel overwhelming. This is why barbiturates were invented in the first place. By binding to the GABA receptors in the brain, these drugs could better regulate the amount of GABA that enters the brain. Here’s a great video from Simply Nursing that explains how these two drugs affect the brain differently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfwJlv5TVAg Benzos bind to the same receptors but on a different part. They still work to regulate the amount of GABA that enters the brain. However, they don’t block the chemical entirely. Instead, they block it for a shorter period of time, allowing the brain to calibrate itself accordingly. Usually, the effect this has is to relieve the user’s anxiety for a few hours. This is much different than drugs in the barbiturate class, which can sedate the user for several days.
How are They Used Today?
For the most part, these drugs come in pill form. Doctors prescribe these meds only in cases where the patient needs a long-acting supply of GABA (after some surgeries, for example). The drug also comes in a liquid tincture form that is taken with an eyedropper. People who use the drug for recreational purposes, however, may snort or smoke the drug. Others take it intravenously. Like heroin or meth, they inject the liquid directly into their bloodstream. While this is far less common than it was a few decades ago (barbiturate injection was HUGE with the motorcycle crowd), it does still happen in some cases.
The Risks of Barbiturate Abuse
Much like opioids, these drugs are central nervous system depressants. This means that they slow your nervous system down very quickly and for a long time. This is, in part, why they work so well for anxiety. They enabled people to relax. They slowed down their heart rate and helped them to breathe a bit slower. When your heart rate slows down even just a little, you’re able to think a little clearer and make more rational decisions. When you take too much a CNS depressant, though, you risk shutting your nervous system down entirely. As you might imagine, this isn’t good. If your lungs stop pumping blood and your lungs stop circulating air, you’ll experience a complete respiratory failure and you’re probably going to die. This is usually what happens in barbiturate overdoses. It’s how Marilyn Monroe died. It’s how Judy Garland and Alan Wilson (the lead singer of Canned Heat) died, too. They all did it on purpose (it was a common method of suicide for a long time) but plenty of people have overdosed on these drugs by accident.
Other Potential Side Effects
In addition to respiratory depression, there are a number of other negative side effects. Barbiturate abuse can lead to: Chemical dependence: As with most prescription drugs, abusing it can cause you to become chemically dependent on it. This is particularly true if you use illicit methods such as smoking or injecting it. Although it may have started as a prescription, you’ll find yourself dealing with a serious addiction. Insomnia: Ironically enough, this sleep aid can make insomnia worse if you misuse it. When your GABA levels are sent out of whack, your anxiety can get worse and cause you to lose sleep. Auditory and visual hallucinations: These drugs actually have hallucinogenic effects when taken in large quantities. It’s not the effect that most users seek (they’ll probably take LSD or psilocybin if that’s what they’re after) but it can affect the user’s perception in strange ways. Impaired thought and speech: The effects of barbiturates are somewhat similar to alcohol. This is because they affect the brain in a similar way. Take enough Nembutal or Seconal and you’ll find yourself feeling nauseous and drunk for a few days.
Mixing Barbiturates and Alcohol is a Serious No-No
It appears that the majority of barb-related overdoses also involved alcohol. That was certainly the case with Jimi Hendrix. He was a big partier and suspected to have been addicted to the pills, although that’s never been confirmed. Whether he was dependent on them or not doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that the drugs killed him because he took them with booze. Alcohol, like “Christmas trees” (to use my dad’s lingo), is a depressant. It also slows down the respiratory system. When the two drugs are paired up, then, they’re far more likely to do some damage. Essentially, Jimi was asphyxiated while sleeping. His lungs stopped working. The drug-alcohol combo kicked in and slowed down his CNS, which triggered his lungs to slow down to the point of respiratory failure. On top of this, the singer vomited in his sleep, clogging his throat and causing him to choke. In short—mixing booze and barbs is something to avoid. If you’re prescribed these drugs by a doctor, make sure to use them responsibly.
Don’t Drink with Barbs in Your System, Either
Remember, barbiturates have a super long half-life. They’ll stay in your system for nearly five days if you take a big enough dose. Benzos don’t last nearly that long (Klonopin is completely out within a day, to give you an idea). It’s important, therefore, to avoid alcohol for a few days after you’ve taken them. Even if you don’t feel the effects of the drug anymore, you should avoid it. If there are any traces of the drug in your system and you add alcohol to the mix, you run the risk of creating a very fatal cocktail.
If You’re Addicted, Please Get Help
Like I pointed out above, millions of people are currently taking these drugs. Hundreds of people die every year by overdosing on them. It appears, then, that barbiturate abuse is a much bigger problem than most people think. It leads to all kinds of bad things, and not just death. You don’t have to be a heroin addict or alcoholic to check into detox. People go to detox programs for all kinds of addictions. I’ve spent some time in rehab facilities, so trust me. There’s detox for benzo addicts. There’s detox for marijuana addicts. And there’s most certainly detox for barbiturate addicts. Detox programs are basically just a place where you can flush the drug out of your system with some professional supervision. Withdrawing from any drug, after all, can be kind of painful. In a professional detox facility, you’ll have doctors around you that will make sure you’re as comfortable (and as safe) as possible while you go through withdrawals.
Not sure if you’re addicted? Take one of these free assessments to get a clear answer:
Are You Addicted to Drugs? Are You Abusing Prescription Drugs? Is Your Family Member Addicted to Drugs? These quizzes will help AspenRidge North to assess your habit. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and let you know whether or not they think you have a problem.
Barbiturate Overdoses are Still a Dangerous Problem
I understand that these drugs aren’t covered as often as opioids and benzos. I also understand that they aren’t killing as many people as heroin, fentanyl or other drugs. However, barbiturates are still highly addictive and very risky. If you’re currently abusing them, you’re putting your life at risk. AspenRidge North can help you overcome your struggle. They’ll work with you to battle your addiction and to work toward living a better life. Please don’t let yourself become another overdose statistic. If you have a problem, call AspenRidge for help today.