3.7 Examples of depressants

What is Alcohol?

A black and white image of a table of drinks and empty alcohol bottles.
A table of drinks and empty alcohol bottles. Credit: palette by ebrkut CC BY-ND 2.0.

Alcohol is a widely available depressant in Canada and alcohol use in Canada is significant.  According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction[1] alcohol is the most commonly used substance by Canadians.

What is its origin?

Alcohol use is not new, in fact, historians have found evidence of use of alcohol for many centuries; “for most of the past 10,000 years, alcoholic beverages were the most popular and common daily drink among people in Western civilization”.[2]  Alcohol is produced by fermenting or distilling various fruits, vegetables or grains.  Fermented beverages include beer and wine, and have a maximum alcohol content of about 15%.  Liquor (distilled beverages such as rum, whisky and vodka) have a higher alcohol content (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2021a).

What does it look like?

Alcohol is a liquid substance; ethyl (pure) alcohol is a clear, colourless liquid.[3]  You will find alcohol in beer, wine, spirits, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, cough syrup, perfume, various extracts (like vanilla for baking), aftershave, mouthwash and some body washes.

How is it administered?

Alcohol is consumed orally.

What are the effects on the mind?

Alcohol is a depressant that suppresses central nervous system activity (CNS). At rather low doses, alcohol use is associated with feelings of euphoria. As the dose increases, people report feeling sedated. With excessive alcohol use, a person might experience a complete loss of consciousness and/or difficulty remembering events that occurred during a period of intoxication.[4]  Psychological dependence is high with alcohol, due to the impact on the CNS.

What are the effects on the body?

Generally, alcohol is associated with decreases in reaction time and visual acuity, lowered levels of alertness, and reduction in behavioral control.  Alcohol can cause birth defects such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) for women who are pregnant. Physical dependence of alcohol is high, as tolerance increases with the amount and frequency the alcohol is consumed.  For people who have an alcohol use disorder, withdrawal can be life-threatening and should only be done under medical supervision.

What is the legal status in Canada?

Alcohol is legal in Canada and can be consumed by individuals ages 18 and over, depending on province.  Provinces set their age limit for consumption as well as licensing for sale of alcohol.

Activities

  1. Brainstorm the ways that alcohol might impact an individual, a family, a community, a province, a country
  2. Create your own marketing campaign for safe consumption of alcohol.
  3. Review current alcohol marketing.  How does marketing impact alcohol use in Canada?
  4. Develop a social media post that addresses alcohol use among youth, adults or seniors.

IN THE NEWS: READ

Alcohol and cannabis sales across Canada rose by over $2.6B during the pandemic, study suggests by Samantha Craggs posted November 4, 2021 to CBC News Hamilton.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are depressants that produce a wide spectrum of central nervous system depression from mild sedation to coma. They have been used as sedatives, hypnotics, anesthetics, and anticonvulsants.

(a) Advertisment for Elixir Veronal (barbituate), a practical treatment of insomnia.  Marketed as secure and harmless. (b) Advertisement for Abbott sodium pentobarbital (barbituate) in an American medical journal of 1933, highlighting its “short but powerful hypnotic effect and prolonged sedative action from small dosage”.
(a) Advertisment for Elixir Veronal (barbituate), a practical treatment of insomnia.  Marketed as secure and harmless. (b) Advertisement for Abbott sodium pentobarbital (barbituate) in an American medical journal of 1933, highlighting its “short but powerful hypnotic effect and prolonged sedative action from small dosage”. Source: The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction.

What is their origin?

Barbiturates were first introduced for medical use in the 1900s.  “The clinical introduction of barbiturates begun a century ago (1904) when the Farbwerke Fr. Bayer and Co. brought onto the market the first agent of this type, diethyl-barbituric acid, giving rise to profound changes in the pharmacological approach to the psychiatric and neurological disorders of the time”.[5]

What do They Look Like?

Barbiturates come in a variety of multi-colored pills and tablets as well as in liquid form.

How are they administered?

Barbiturates are most often consumed orally or by injecting a liquid. Barbiturates are generally administered to reduce anxiety and decrease inhibitions. Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because overdoses can occur easily and lead to death.

What is their effect on the mind?

Barbiturates cause mild euphoria, lack of inhibition, relief of anxiety, and sleepiness. Higher doses cause impairment of memory, judgment, and coordination; irritability; and paranoid and suicidal ideation. Tolerance develops quickly and larger doses are then needed to produce the same effect, increasing the danger of an overdose.

What is their effect on the body?

Barbiturates slow down the central nervous system and cause sleepiness.  Overdose can occur easily.

What is their legal status in Canada?

Barbiturates are Schedule IV depressants under the CDSA.

IN THE NEWS: READ

Newly available drug secobarbital could boost number of self-administered assisted deaths by Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press posted November 17 2017 to CBC News Politics.

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are depressants that produce sedation and hypnosis, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and reduce seizures. They are used to induce sedation for surgery and other medical procedures, and in the treatment of seizures and alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines are also called minor tranquillizers, sedatives or hypnotics. The most common benzodiazepines are the prescription drugs Valium, Xanax, Halcion, Ativan, and Klonopin. Tolerance can develop, although at variable rates and to different degrees.  Shorter-acting benzodiazepines used to manage insomnia include Halcion and Versed, used for sedation, anxiety, and amnesia in critical care settings and prior to anesthesia.  Benzodiazepines with a longer duration of action are utilized to treat insomnia in patients with daytime anxiety. These benzodiazepines include Xanax, Librium, Valium, Ativan and. Clonazepam.  Clonazepam is also used as an anticonvulsant. They are the most widely prescribed psychoactive drugs in the world.[6]

What is their Origin?

In 1955, Hoffmann-La Roche chemist Leo Sternbach identified the first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide (Librium).[7] Benzodiazepines are only available through prescription.

What do They Look Like?

Benzodiazepines come in both pill and liquid form.

How are they administered?

Benzodiazepines are taken orally, or crushed to snort.  They can also be injected.

What is their Effect on the Mind?

Benzodiazepines are associated with amnesia, hostility, irritability, and vivid or disturbing dreams.

What is their Effect on the Body?

Benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system and may cause sleepiness.  Death by overdose is possible.

What is their Legal Status in Canada?

Benzodiazepines are controlled in Schedule IV of the CDSA.

IN THE NEWS: WATCH

Benzodiazepines on the rise in street opioids, drug checking services say by CBC News posted December 27, 2021 to CBC News: Health.

What is GHB?

Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) is another name for the generic drug sodium oxybate. It is a substance naturally present in your body. GHB is often called a date-rape drug, because its sedative effects prevent victims from resisting sexual assault.

What Does it Look Like?

GHB comes in liquid and powder form.

Three vials containing GHB and a white powdery substance in front of them.
GHB, Drugs of Abuse. Credit: U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration

What is its origin?

GHB was first synthesized in 1960 as an alternative anesthetic to aid in surgery because of its ability to induce sleep and reversible coma.[8]

How is it administered?

In Canada, doctors can prescribe GHB for narcolepsy (a serious sleep disorder) and it is taken orally.

What is its effect on the mind?

GHB occurs naturally in the central nervous system in very small amounts. It acts as a depressant, slowing and calming the activity of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  Effects including euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, confusion, and memory impairment.  GHB can also produce both visual hallucinations and — paradoxically — excited and aggressive behavior.  GHB greatly increases the CNS depressant effects of alcohol and other depressants, which increases the risk of overdose.

What is its effect on the body?

GHB takes effect in 15 to 30 minutes, and the effects last 3 to 6 hours. Low doses of GHB produce nausea.  At high doses, GHB overdose can result in unconsciousness, seizures, slowed heart rate, greatly slowed breathing, lower body temperature, vomiting, nausea, coma, and death.  Regular use of GHB can lead to tolerance and withdrawal that includes insomnia, anxiety, tremors, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and occasional psychotic thoughts.  “Effective antidotes to reverse the sedative and intoxicating effects of GHB do not exist”.[9] GHB can cause nausea, vomiting, incontinence, loss of consciousness, seizures, liver damage, kidney failure, respiratory depression, and death.  GHB overdose can cause death.

What is its legal status in Canada?

GHB is a Schedule IV controlled substance by the CDSA.

IN THE NEWS: READ

(warning, this story may cause activation).

Toronto man jailed for drugging friend with date rape drug by Alyshah Hasham posted February 7, 2017 to the Toronto Star.

Food for Thought

  • Which depressant did you know the most about?  The least?

Chapter Credit

Adapted from Drugs, Health & Behavior by Jacqueline Schwab. CC BY-NC-SA. Updated with Canadian Content.

Image Credits

  • palette by ebrkut via flickr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
  • Images of historical advertisements for barbiturates from: López-Muñoz, F., Ucha-Udabe, R., & Alamo, C. (2005). The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 1(4), 329–343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2424120/
  • GHB, Drugs of Abuse from: U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of abuse (p 57). https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-06/drug_of_abuse.pdf

  1. Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2017). Canadian drug summary-alcohol. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/CCSA-Canadian-Drug-Summary-Alcohol-2017-en.pdf
  2. Stewart, S. (2004). The history, current prevalence, and consequences of drinking problems in Canada, (para. 1) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228688984_The_History_Current_Prevalence_and_Consequences_of_Drinking_Problems_in_Canada
  3. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021a). Alcohol. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/alcohol
  4. McKim W. A. & Hancock S. (2013). Drugs & behavior : introduction to behaviorial pharmacology plus mysearchlab with etext -- access card package (Seventh). Pearson Education.
  5. López-Muñoz, F., Ucha-Udabe, R., & Alamo, C. (2005). The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 1(4), 329–343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2424120/
  6. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021b). Anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines)https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/anti-anxiety-medications-benzodiazepines
  7. Wick J. Y. (2013). The history of benzodiazepines. The Journal of the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists, 28(9), 538-548. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24007886/
  8. O’Connell T., Kaye L., & Plosay J.J. 3rd. (2000, Dec. 1). Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB): A newer drug of abuse. American Family Physician, 62(11), 2478-2483. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11130233/
  9. Busardò, F. P., & Jones, A. W. (2015). GHB pharmacology and toxicology: acute intoxication, concentrations in blood and urine in forensic cases and treatment of the withdrawal syndrome. Current neuropharmacology13(1), 47–70. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X13666141210215423

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