Depressants encompass several large groups of drugs that slow down the central nervous system. In small doses, they affect sections of the brain responsible for our conscious, voluntary actions, while large doses act on areas that govern automatic functions like breathing and heart rate.
Hypnotics are prescribed as sleeping aids. Tranquilizers are divided into two categories. “Major” tranquilizers are used to treat mental illness. You may hear them referred to as neuroleptics or antipsychotics. “Minor” tranquilizers, also called anxiolytics, ease anxiety without slowing down the body.
Sedatives exert a calming effect on the mind and body. In higher doses, many also induce sleep. Some see double duty as anticonvulsants, for controlling seizures, and as muscle relaxants.
Teenage abuse of depressants tapered off in the 1980s and remained relatively stable in the 1990s. Only about one in eighteen adolescents have experimented with these drugs, despite their presence in millions of home medicine cabinets. An estimated four million prescriptions are written for tranquilizers each year. But that number is dwarfed by the number for sedatives. One type of sedative, benzodiazepines, accounts for 30 percent of controlled substances prescribed by U.S. doctors.
The potential for addiction is high. Barbiturates, the forerunner to benzodiazepines, quickly lead to tolerance. When that happens, the margin of safety between an effective dose and a lethal dose narrows dangerously. It’s akin to driving a car along a treacherous mountain ridge, with a breathtaking view on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. A young person under the influence may be too heavily sedated to remember how much of the drug he or she has taken, and inadvertently overdose.
Barbiturates still make up one-fifth of all prescriptions for depressants, but serious side effects and the high incidence of fatalities eventually led to the development of benzodiazepines in the 1960s. While these medications are safer overall, chronic use can progress to dependence, and to ingest them with alcohol may be courting death.
A benzodiazepine called flunitrazepam (brand name: Rohypnol) began infiltrating American dance clubs in the 1990s. Though illegal here, “roofies” are smuggled in from the dozens of foreign countries where they are routinely prescribed to treat severe insomnia and psychiatric disorders. Just one of the inexpensive white tablets induces intoxication equivalent to two six-packs of beer and is ten times more powerful than another sedative, Valium. Taking Rohypnol and alcohol together heightens the effects.
In response to this growing problem, Congress passed the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996. Now anyone who uses Rohypnol or another drug to aid in committing a sexual attack can be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison. What’s more, although flunitrazepam remains a schedule IV controlled substance, the penalties for manufacturing, smuggling or distributing it were increased to those of schedule I depressants.
The drug’s manufacturer also took steps to make the product more detectable in beverages and thus thwart would-be rapists. First it colored the tablets green and reformulated them so that they take longer to dissolve. Then the company phased in a new Rohypnol that is half the dose of the now-discontinued original. However, it may take years before the less potent roofies receive approval in every one of the many countries in which they are marketed.
Not only that, but Rohypnol is just one of several so-called “date-rape drugs.” The others, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), GBL (gamma butyrolactone, a precursor of GHB) and the hallucinogen ketamine (an animal tranquilizer) are also being used to spike girls’ drinks for the purpose of sexually assaulting them. At high doses, these chemicals can send a young woman into a deep comalike sleep lasting anywhere from one to eight hours.
Signs of Depressant Use
- Depressed breathing and heart rate
- Sluggishness, drowsiness
- Dilated pupils
- Dizziness, confusion, disorientation
- Poor concentration
- Poor coordination
- Sleeping for long periods of time
- Skin rashes
- Large swollen areas of skin, sometimes with open sores, at injection sites
- Lack of inhibitions
- Hallucinations, especially when taken with alcohol
Possible Long-Term Effects
- Aggressive behavior
- Profound depression
- Irregular menstruation