Addiction to Anti-Anxiety Drugs Triples in 10 Years

By Dirk Hanson 06/09/11

Klonopin, other benzodiazepines are rapidly becoming everybody's second-favorite drug of abuse.

Not just for mothers.
Photo via pharmacy1000

It's a tartling figure: In just ten years, hospitals and treatment centers in the United States reported a 300% rise in benzodiazepine-related admissions , jumping from 1.3% of all drug-related admissions in 1998, to 3.2% in 2008. But while the overall number of benzo addicts remains pretty low compared to the numbers of people addicted other drugs—the ballooning use of benzos has treatment officials worried for reasons. A newly-released report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that almost everybody who checked into treatment for benzodiazepine had downed another drug. with 82% of patients reporting primary abuse of another substance. While pure benzo abusers represent just a small slice of the treatment population (sorry, Stevie Nicks), the drug is increasingly  part of a cocktail  of other illicit substances. Klonopin, especially, is high. In addition, Benzos are highly addictive and very tough to get off of. Klonopin, in particular, has a wide range of side effects.  (See Christopher Byron's blockbuster feature on Klonopin here).

It’s important to note that very few treatment admissions involved only anti-anxiety medications. But this caveat is troubling in its own way, because it is evidence of the increasing use of benzos as a second-order addiction. The most common combination, SAMHSA found, was opiates and benzos, although in patients over 45, it was alcohol and benzos. Both combinations are extremely dangerous and potential lethal. Among teenagers, it’s marijuana and benzos—not a life-threatening mix, except in unusual cases.

While it is easy to overstate the extent of the problem, it is true, as SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde put it, that the “misuse of benzodiazepines along with other prescription drugs in fueling the rise of treatment admissions.” A rise in benzodiazepine admissions also points to the inescapable connection between addiction and other psychiatric disorders—the phenomenon known in medicine as co-morbidity. Even when use in controlled circumstances for anxiety, under a doctor’s direct supervision, benzodiazepines can cause serious withdrawal issues during detox and recovery.

Interestingly, the vast majority of benzodiazepine admissions involved white males between the ages of 18 and 34, the report stated. So much for mother’s little helper.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]