Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs used to treat seizures, muscle spasms, insomnia or anxiety. Because of their potential for abuse, they are Schedule IV controlled substances. This means they are only available with a prescription. 

Doctors first developed benzodiazepines as a replacement for an earlier class of similar drugs called barbiturates. According to WebMD, benzodiazepines are safer to take than barbiturates. However, they can also have some of the same ill effects, including tolerance and dependence. 

How do benzodiazepines work in the body? 

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, benzodiazepines work by slowing down the central nervous system, i.e., the brain and the spine. This can cause the person who takes them to become relaxed and sleepy. 

What are some of the signs of benzodiazepine abuse? 

Taking too much of a benzodiazepine can cause symptoms of rapid and weak pulse, shallow respiration, dilated pupils and clammy skin. If the central nervous system slows down too much, the person may slip into a coma or even die. Mental effects of taking benzodiazepines may include disturbing dreams, irritability/hostility or memory loss. 

What are the different types of benzodiazepines? 

Benzodiazepines may be either long-acting or short-acting. Long-acting benzodiazepines include Ativan, Xanax and Valium, which doctors prescribe to treat anxiety. Short-acting benzodiazepines typically treat insomnia. Examples include Versed, Restoril and Halcion. 

How do people obtain benzodiazepines illicitly? 

Some people try to get around the requirement for a prescription by forging a doctor’s signature or by obtaining multiple prescriptions by more than one doctor. People who use these methods to obtain drugs might keep them for their own use or sell them to others.