What are Barbiturates?
Barbiturates are a group of prescription medications in the class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics designed to treat insomnia, seizures and headaches by depressing the central nervous system (CNS). They are sometimes used in a hospital setting for pre-operative sedation. First developed in 1864, these medications gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, extensively prescribed due to their effectiveness in producing relaxation and sleepiness in patients. They are only prescribed for specific indications these days since benzodiazepines, which are considered safer, are readily available. Doctors have stated how difficult it is to determine the safe effective dose of a barbiturate and warn that even a slight miscalculation can result in coma or death.
Phenobarbital, Butabarbital (Butisol), Seconal, Nembutal and Amobarbital are a few common barbiturates available in the United States, although they are available in many names. Depending on their form and use, barbiturates are now scheduled II, III and IV drugs in the US. Street names for these drugs vary greatly and are usually derived from the color and markings of the actual pill (ex. Downers, Yellow jackets, Purple hearts, Goof balls). Recreational use of these drugs has decreased due to the significant decrease in doctors prescribing them. Although not as common as other prescription drugs, people do become addicted to barbiturates. Alarmingly, a large portion of barbiturate abusers are high school students, likely due to this age group being too young to recall the deaths associated to using these drugs during the 1970s.
These medications are often used as “downers” to offset the exhilaration from stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. Users of these drugs report experiencing a “high” like intoxication. It’s important to stress that there is a very small difference in a dose that causes drowsiness and one that causes death – that’s why anyone taking these medications is at risk. In the medical profession, this narrow difference is known as a Therapeutic Index (the ratio of a medication’s toxic vs. therapeutic dose). The narrow therapeutic index for barbiturates is the likely reason why they are not often prescribed today. If the narrow therapeutic index wasn’t enough, barbiturates are extremely addictive. People who use them, even for short durations, become physically dependent.