Depressants are a broad category of drugs that slow down the central nervous system. They have both legal and illegal uses. Unlike other potential drugs of abuse, they rarely come from illicit laboratories. Instead, prescription medications make their way to the illegal market. Among the terms used to describe such drugs are downers, sedatives, minor tranquilizers, anti-anxiety medications and anxiolytics.
Prescription barbiturates, also known as sedative-hypnotics, are available under names such as Phenobarbital, Amytal and Nembutal. Benzodiazepines, sold under such names as Xanax and Valium, are one of the most widely prescribed medication types in the U.S., according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Alcohol, marijuana and certain kinds of inhalants also fall into the depressant category, though alcohol according to the University of Rochester, also has stimulant properties.
Among the uses of depressants are reducing anxiety, inducing sleep and lowering inhibitions. Abusers of other drugs, including cocaine and heroin, sometimes use depressants to increase the high they feel or mitigate side effects related to overstimulation, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Depressants can cause slowed breathing, decreased blood pressure, drowsiness, slurred speech and impaired judgment, coordination and memory.
Addiction is a possibility with depressants. Overdose leading to coma and death is another risk, especially when two or more depressant drugs are combined. The drugs tend to lead to tolerance, meaning that more and more of the substance is needed to achieve the same effects, so abusers sometimes take dangerously high doses. Additionally, the majority of depressant drugs carry a risk of withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Mild cases cause anxiety and insomnia. More severe cases can involve tremors, weakness, seizures and delirium and even death.
Barbiturates dominated the realm of antidepressants during the early half of the 20th century for both legal and illegal use. The number of deaths associated with them led drug makers to develop alternatives, and as of 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was reporting that fewer than 10 percent of U.S. depressant prescriptions were for barbiturates. Benzodiazepines came out in the 1960s and have ruled the market since then. They now account, according to the agency, for one of every five prescriptions for a controlled substance.
Emerging since about 1990 as a depressant drug of abuse has been gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB. It is illegal in the United States but can be brought from other countries or produced in illicit labs. Some users take it for its intoxicating and hallucinogenic effects, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Others use it in bodybuilding for purported anabolic properties. And others secretly give it to victims as a date-rape drug.