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Written by: Editorial Staff.

What are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants, producing a variety of sedative and anesthetic effects. Barbiturates are a group of drugs that all have both medical and addictive potential, although, for medical use, benzodiazepines have generally superseded barbiturates.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, died of an overdose of barbiturates, including singer/songwriter Jimi Hendrix.

History of Barbiturates

history of Barbiturates

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 1950s. 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 1940s, 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

Types of barbiturates that are most abused include:

  • Pentobarbital
  • Secobarbital
  • 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 known 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.

Barbiturate Abuse Symptoms

Symptoms of Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturates are addictive. When taken daily for more than a month, the brain becomes addicted. Thus, if a person does not take the drug, it causes severe symptoms.

The effects of barbiturates and alcohol are similar, and when combined, can be harmful. Sleeping pills, pain relievers, and antihistamines addiction also have similar symptoms as barbiturates abuse.

  • In small doses, the abuser may feel sleepy, unwell, and drunk.
  • At a moderate level, users stutter like a drunk, speak slowly, and become confused.
  • With higher doses, the person may not wake up (coma), and their breathing may also stop.


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 ’60s and ’70s, most barbiturates are schedule II drugs. The longer-acting barbiturates are from schedule IV and used for chronic seizures and alike problems.

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.