..Some people just seem
to have it, and other people don’t.
Take A. Bayer,
In a span of about thirty years in the late 19th century, his
German pharmaceutical firm discovered just about every compound
and cure worth discovering — at least the ones that mattered
most at the time, the ones that completely turned around the
way that we looked at common diseases and treatments for those
Take heroin, for example. Or aspirin. Bayer’s labs discovered
them both, and both revolutionized the treatment of pain — and
reorganized much of the psychic terrain of the 20th century.
But one of Bayer’s own discoveries would have almost as much
impact on modern life and leisure.
That was his 1862 combination of urea and malonic acid, a new
compound he dubbed “Barbara’s urates” — in honor of
the patron saint, St. Barbara, of the day he made his discovery,
It took him a while to figure out what, exactly, the compound
was good for. But when Bayer and the boys back at the lab started
finding uses for barbiturates, they nearly knocked medicine on
its collective ear with the sheer number of applications they
came up with.
..Early Uses, Early Problems
it seemed, were good for just about everything that could ail
They were an effective sedative for the terminally nervous. They
helped dyed-in-the-wool insomniacs sleep like babies. They reduced
seizure activity in epileptics and quieted the terror of long-hospitalized
mental patients. They helped anesthetize patients before surgery.
In short, barbiturates
— all 2,500 or so that were eventually derived from Bayer’s
original formula — were true “wonder drugs” of the
But they weren’t perfect — not by a long shot.
They turned out to be addictive, for one thing. And they cause
life-and-death problems when used to excess. And they’ve often
been used to excess.
In fact, over the years, barbiturates have established a solid
reputation as one of the surest routes around to pharmacological
A. Bayer couldn’t have guessed that things would turn out this
way. If he had, he probably would have knocked himself out to
find another drug to make the problems go away.
are all variations on the same basic chemical theme, all produce
more or less the same effects in more or less the same way —
by slowing the flow of neural transmission throughout the central
Still, there are distinctions.
Barbiturates are grouped — according to how fast (and how long)
they work in the body and what they’re prescribed for — into
three main categories:
- Ultrashort-acting. (e.g. Sodium Pentothal®)
They produce their effects quickly, usually within 20 minutes.
They’re used most often to prepare surgical patients for anesthesia.
- Short- (or
intermediate-) acting. (e.g. Seconal®, Nembutal®) This group takes
a little longer to start their effects, but works over a longer
period of time. They’re prescribed as sleeping pills, and are
most subject to abuse.
phenobarbital) Long-acting barbs may not achieve full effectiveness
for hours or days. They’re often used to reduce seizures and
..Dosage & Effects
of their differences, the effects of individual barbiturates
are remarkably similar.
50mg or so), are similar to alcohol. Effects involve a mild impairment
of thought and coordination and the same release of inhibition
that enables drinkers to sing (even if they’re tone deaf) or
flirt (even if they’re shy).
Moderate doses (100-200mg, for example), produce effects
that are more pronounced, with sleep a more-or-less predictable
outcome. Doses at this level can also cause a mild intoxication,
complete with slurred speech, clouded judgment, and a greater
release of inhibition.
High doses (more than 200mg, in a non-addicted person),
result in an even more intense — and more unpredictable — level
of intoxication. Here, users display wide
mood swings, and may talk in a babbling, incoherent manner. Coordination
can be reduced to the point that ordinary activities — walking
down stairs or driving a car — become serious, life-on-the-line
emergencies. Normal judgment is markedly reduced at best, nearly
nonexistent at worst.
And those are
just the behavioral effects. In the body, higher doses can cause
life- threatening symptoms — from lowered blood pressure and
heart rate to cardiovascular collapse.
And no matter
how good you feel or how much fun you’re having, when that happens
you’re dead. As a doornail.
..Life in the Last Lane
If you live long
enough to get strung out on barbs and they still don’t kill you,
rest assured that they’ll do the next best thing: They’ll make
your life miserable. Guaranteed.
why is that addicts take a lot of barbiturates for a long time.
And that causes a lot of problems.
What kinds of problems? Lots of problems — take impaired thinking
and memory, for example, they’re pretty common.
So are bad judgment, bad reflexes, and fatigue.
Don’t like those? Then try these: depression, hostility, reduced
sex drive, paranoia, and suicide.
On the physical side, there’s deterioration of the central nervous
system and damage to the liver and pancreas, both linked to the
toxicity of the drug in the body.
Then there’s addiction. Because whether A. Bayer foresaw it or
not, barbiturates are addictive — powerfully so. Tolerance builds
quickly. That means users have to keep raising their dosage to
keep feeling the way they felt yesterday and the day before that.
And that can mean disaster.
Because while tolerance to the intoxicating effects of barbiturates
is fast, tolerance to the respiratory-depressant effects is slow,
which means that things can get lethal PDQ.
And dying does happen — all the time, as a matter of fact. And
if you think it can’t happen to you because you’re not that stupid,
think again. Everybody who gets strung out on barbiturates is
that stupid. And if you’re not that stupid to begin with, don’t
worry about it.
Barbiturates will make you that way.
The best way
to handle an overdose is to a) maintain breathing, and b) keep
the person awake and moving — preferably in the direction of
the nearest hospital.
That’s because a barbiturate OD is a life-threatening emergency
and common-sense remedies that might seem like they should work
(like coffee and cold showers) don’t always do a lot of good
— especially if they wind up delaying real treatment.
After all, it’s next to impossible to predict lethality, given
all the factors (age, body size, tolerance, etc.) that raise
or lower OD threshold.
And that task becomes even more difficult when alcohol (or another
downer drug) gets added to the mix, since alcohol and other downers
are metabolized by the same enzymes in the liver.
Since alcohol is a simpler molecule than barbiturates, it gets
deactivated first, while barbs are re-absorbed into the bloodstream.
That means mixing alcohol and barbs (or other depressants) not
only produces a deeper level of intoxication; it also produces
a much greater depressant action on the heart and lungs — sometimes
to the point that all systems are off. And all bets are off then,
..Stuck & Unstuck
But say you’re
an addict and you live through an OD or two and you stay strung
out. There’s always withdrawal. That can kill you, too.
Because a full-fledged barbiturate habit is one of the hardest
of all addictions to shake. It doesn’t just involve discomfort
and mental anguish (though they’re both there, too). It also
involves seizures — even death, if you take too much too long.
The more serious health risks linked to barbiturate withdrawal
typically follow high dosage levels (400mg or more a day) over
a prolonged period — usually weeks or months.
Symptoms appear within 12-24 hours (depending on the drug) and
peak within 24-72 hours (later, in the case of long-acting barbs).
In addition to garden-variety withdrawal symptoms (chills, cramps,
and insomnia), barb detox can cause delirium, hallucinations,
seizures, and (as we mentioned a moment ago) the granddaddiest
why-do-you-think-they-call-it-dope symptom of all: death, usually
by cardiovascular collapse or cerebral hemorrhage.
Dying isn’t an inevitable outcome of withdrawal, but it does
happen often enough (in as many as 5 percent of all cases involving
severe addiction) that it’s not exactly a fluke, either.
What to do? If you’re addicted, get yourself into a detox facility.
Withdrawal is more than tough. It can also be dangerous.
When old A. Bayer
looked at his life, he probably thought he’d accomplished quite
a bit through his discovery of “Barbara’s urates” back
After all, how often does anyone cure any disease — much less
four or five in a single stroke the way A. thought he had —
in a lifetime, much less a single afternoon?
It’s probably a good thing he didn’t live to see the rough handling
that history finally gave his discovery.
e uses Bayer dreamed up have fallen by the pharmacological roadside
— partly due to the dangers of the compounds, partly due to
the development of newer, less-risky substitutes.
Today, far from being seen as a cure or solution for much of
anything (except an occasional sleepless night for the people
who try to sell them), barbiturates mostly look like just one
more problem to be dealt with — and, for some people, dealt
with and dealt with and dealt with.
That’s because barbiturates are serious drugs and can cause serious
problems if you let them.
Don’t let them. Because these barbs can sting for a long time.
..Sidebar | Fade to Black
Drugs have destroyed
their share of stars over the years, but none has a done a more
lethal job — or shorted-out more electrifying talent — than
Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix were only the two most prominent
names on coroner’s reports listing “barbiturate poisoning”
or “depressant drug OD” as the cause of death.
Thousands of other names were there, too. And, as much as anything
ever can, their deaths serve to remind us just how deadly barbiturates
That’s the main reason the drugs have declined both as medical
drugs and in street availability in recent years.
Other drugs — especially the benzodiazepines (see “The
Other Guys” box, below, for details) — do many of the same
things and pose much less of a life-threatening risk to health
than barbiturates and have eclipsed them both in sales and the
Hopefully, they’ll eventually do to barbiturates what barbiturates
did to Marilyn and Jimi.
..Sidebar | The Other Guys: Non-Barbiturate Sedative-Hypnotics
Science has been
hot on the trail of a good safe alternative to barbiturates almost
since the first commercially-produced barbiturate, Veronal, rolled
off the assembly line in 1903.
The problem with most of the early non-barbiturate sedative hypnotics
(as any new non-barbiturate sleeping pill came to be called)
is that most were as bad as (and some worse than) the drugs they
were designed to replace. And while newer drugs have minimized
a lot of the early problems, no depressant drug yet has proven
perfect. All are addictive given half a chance, and all cause
problems given less of a chance than that.
Here are some of the more common non-barbiturates in use today
— and their relative risk potential.
*Methaqualone is no longer
manufactured or distributed in the United States.
**Rohypnol is available in Mexico and Europe, but possession
is outlawed in the U.S.