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Benzodiazepines: The Next Drug Epidemic Crisis?

The opioid addiction and overdose crisis is old news, but is this country on the cusp of a new prescription drug epidemic? Some experts fear that a class of drugs, benzodiazepines, is the next drug epidemic. Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as “Benzos”, are effective at treating acute anxiety and panic disorders when therapy and other drugs don’t help. But benzos are powerful drugs and they can be highly addictive. Despite their dangers, benzos are so effective at treating anxiety that prescription rates for these drugs have skyrocketed. The huge increase in the number of prescriptions written for benzos in the past few years suggest that, like opioids, these prescriptions are too freely dispensed.

Many healthcare professionals are concerned and believe more attention needs to be paid to this potential looming crisis. The benzodiazepine prescription trajectory mimics the large increase in opioid prescriptions that ended in a crisis this country still suffers from today. And like opioids, a person can suffer a fatal overdose on benzos.

As with opioids, the legal prescription market has made its way into the recreational drug market. The use of benzodiazepines as a recreational drug among teens and young adults is increasing. Among this age group benzo addiction has taken over the rates of addiction to opioids. While young people may think it is okay to take the drug because it is a prescription drug – even if the prescription is not for them – the truth is, it is dangerous, addictive, and illegal.  Many abusers are also using benzodiazepines in combination with opioids, a dangerous concoction.

The use of benzos has all the signs of a new drug epidemic. While the level of fatal overdoses has not reached the levels found in opioid overdoses, benzodiazepine overdose deaths rose from 1,135 in 1999 to 11,537 in 2017. There was a slight drop off in benzodiazepine overdose deaths between 2017-2019 but during this period the rate of fatal overdoses involving benzodiazepine in combination with opioids (mostly fentanyl) has substantially increased. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that over 30% of fatal opioid overdose victims also have benzodiazepines in their system. These overdoses are labeled an opioid overdose when actually the overdose is due to the combination of opioid and benzodiazepine.

As with opioids, much of the problem may lie with the marketing of these drugs and the doctors who prescribe them. Many primary care physicians prescribe benzodiazepines upon their patients’ requests (or demands); this may be better left to psychiatrists who are specifically trained regarding the dispensing of these drugs.

Can this country prevent a new drug epidemic crisis? With opioids, many people started taking the drug for legitimate reasons but soon became addicted. The same dynamic may be playing out with benzodiazepines.   Did this past year of lockdowns prompt more anxiety and more people seeking help from in the form of a benzodiazepine prescription? Will more of those prescriptions end up in the illicit market? Hopefully not, but the warning signs are there. Education about the dangers of benzodiazepines is key. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be enough attention or awareness of this next potential prescription drug crisis.

Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been defending individuals charged with drug crimes and other criminal matters for over 25 years. If you are being investigated, have been arrested, or have been charged with a crime, he is available for a complimentary consultation to discuss your options.   You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.