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Article Summary

The Socioeconomic Costs of Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use

A benzodiazepine is a member of a class of drugs created by fusing a benzene ring with a diazepine ring. They are psychoactive drugs, and are often used for treating conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, and certain types of seizure. They also have uses in the treatment of alcoholism, as well as sometimes being administered before certain medical procedures are undertaken. Although usually quite safe to use for a short period, there are considerable risks associated with the benzodiazepine usage, both from a health perspective and in terms of their resultant effects on society.

History of benzodiazepines

The first benzodiazepine drug to be discovered was chlordiazepoxide, which is more commonly known by its brand name of Librium. This drug was discovered in 1955 by Leo Sternbach, and five years later it was placed on the commercial market for the first time. The company responsible was Hoffman-La Roche, which in 1963 also began to market what is usually considered the best known of the benzodiazepines: the tranquilizer, diazepam. This drug is sold under the brand name Valium. These drugs steadily replaced barbiturates as prescription medicines, until by the 1970s the transition was largely complete.

Potential side effects

A major reason that benzodiazephine drugs were introduced in place of barbiturates was that the newer substances carry a lesser risk of overdose. However, this is only true in the case of the drug taken on its own; when certain other substances are brought into the equation - in particular, alcohol - the level of toxicity rises sharply. Research suggests that temazepam carries the highest risk within the class, with potentially fatal poisoning being possible in certain vulnerable groups, such as older seniors. Symptoms of an overdose are largely physical rather than psychological; they can range from relatively mild signs such as drowsiness to potentially life-threatening comas and heart attacks.

Socioeconomic problems

The socioeconomic costs of long-term benzodiazepine are many and varied. Research over the years has found that abusers of the drug are more likely to commit a number of criminal and antisocial acts, many of which flow from the drug's impairment of the taker's ability to think clearly and logically. For example, the risk of causing or being involved in an accident rises among benzodiazepine users. This, combined with the drug's known propensity to provoke aggression in its users, can make it particularly dangerous when driving. A number of serious incidents over the years have been attributed, in whole or part, to the fact that one or more drivers involved was taking these drugs.

On a more domestic scale, the emotional impairment which benzodiazepine use can bring is also commonly implicated in the break-up of marriages or the stalling of a person's career development. In the worst cases, abusers of such drugs can become almost unable to function in everyday society, and as a result they may harbor thoughts of suicide. Sometimes, users will deflect these feelings onto others, leading to a high risk of assault, whether verbal or physical. More broadly, socioeconomic effects are also felt in terms of the cost to hospitals and other medical bodies of the treatment and investigation of benzodiazepine abusers.

Recreational abuse

Benzodiazepine abusers constitute a considerable proportion of the entire cohort of drug abusers, with a significant feature being that such people are very likely to be simultaneously abusing other drugs. It is uncommon for people who have been legitimately prescribed one of these drugs to abuse it. Most drugs in this class are listed as Schedule IV by the International Narcotics Control Board, although there is a certain amount of variation across the globe. In the United Kingdom, in particular, temazepam must be stored under especially secure conditions. This requirement was put in place after it was discovered that temazepam was the most likely of all the benzodiazepines to lead to long-term dependency.

Obtaining help for abusers

Although many of the symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse are physical in nature, the long-term effects tend to be psychological. For that reason, talking therapies are often found to be effective; a factsheet has been published by the Rethink Advice and Information Service. It is important to realize that different people will recover from their time abusing the drugs at different rates, but in general it can take up to one year after quitting for the effects to disappear completely. The Psychiatric Medication Awareness Group offers a list of tips and advice which can help people in recovery to manage their progress more effectively and with greater knowledge of what is happening to them.

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