Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants, producing a variety of sedative and anesthetic effects. Barbiturates are a group of drugs that have both medical and addictive potential, although for medical use benzodiazepines have generally superseded barbiturates. They feature prominently in the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and a number of famous people, particularly in the sixties and seventies, have died of an overdose of barbiturates, including singer/songwriter Jimi Hendrix.
The basic ingredient of barbiturates was discovered in 1864 by Adolf Von Baeyer, a German researcher, although it was not until 1903 that the Bayer pharmaceutical company found it could be used as a sedative. Originally purposed for anesthesia and anxiety relief, the physical dependence it can cause was not recognized until the 1950’s. Barbiturates are reported by abusers to impart them with an intense feeling of relaxed contentment and euphoria. They also cause drowsiness, slurred speech, ataxia, decreased anxiety and a loss of inhibitions. The danger of abusing barbiturates is respiratory depression, which can cause breathing to slow and stop altogether.
In the 1940’s, United States military personnel were given “Goofballs”, a mixture of barbiturates designed to lower respiratory rates and blood pressure to allow soldiers to fight more comfortably in hot and humid environments. This led to a high incidence of addiction, and in 1970 barbiturates were designated as a controlled substance in the United States.
Types of barbiturates that are most abused include pentobarbital, secobarbital, and amobarbital. The trade name of pentobarbital is Nembutal, often sold on the street as “yellow-jackets”, and of course, “Yellow Submarines”, made famous by a song by The Beatles. It is also used for euthanasia where permitted by law. Secobarbital, marketed as Seconal, which began to be widely abused in the sixties and seventies, where it was know as “reds,” “red devils,” “red dillies,” and “dolls”. Jimi Hendrix most likely died as the result of an overdose of Seconal. Amobarbitol has a very similar effect to the other two, and was originally considered to be a “truth” serum until it was discovered that false memories could be implanted during questioning.
Withdrawal from barbiturates can be both uncomfortable and fatal, and because of its massively addictive characteristics, a drug intervention is usually required. While the heyday of barbiturate abuse was in the 60’s and 70’s, most barbiturates are schedule II drugs. The longer acting barbiturates are generally schedule IV, and used for chronic seizures and the like. They do have legitimate medical uses, but the risks are high, so everyone should be cautious of barbiturate use, even as prescribed, because benzodiazepines have superseded them for most medical uses.