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In June we wrote about the rising tide of benzodiazepine abuse and overdose in the United States. In case you didn’t have an opportunity to read the post, consider this: overdose deaths involving drugs like Xanax and Klonopin increased from 1135 in 1999 to 8791 in 2015, a nearly eight-fold increase, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Between 1996 and 2013, the number of prescriptions for such narcotics to adults—according to the American Journal of Public Health—skyrocketed by 67 percent.

The above figures are alarming, and they are indeed a cause for significant concern, compounding an already tragic opioid addiction epidemic. NIDA points out that when people use opioids and “benzos” together, the risk of fatal overdose increases roughly ten-fold. And, there are signs that the liberal prescribing of benzodiazepines could be the next drug catastrophe in America.

“What we’re seeing is just like what happened with opioids in the 1990s,” Dr. Anna Lembke, tells Stateline, she is a researcher and addiction specialist at Stanford University. “It really does begin with overprescribing. Liberal therapeutic use of drugs in a medical setting tends to normalize their use. People start to think they’re safe and, because they make them feel good, it doesn’t matter where they get them or how many they use.”

Stemming the Tide of Benzodiazepine Prescribing and Abuse

Doctors rely upon drugs like Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin to treat anxiety and sleeping disorders. Even though people have struggled with this class of drugs since they were first introduced, doctors continue to prescribe at hazardous levels. Tolerance and dependence can arise quickly, and unlike opioids, suddenly abstaining from benzos is not only painful—withdrawal can carry the risk of seizures and death.

Dr. Lembke points out that there is a method in place for tracking and potentially averting abuse, addiction, and overdose. She believes that benzodiazepine prescribing should have the same level of oversight that prescription opioids have today.

“We have this whole infrastructure set up now to prevent overprescribing of opioids and address the need for addiction treatment,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, a researcher and addiction specialist at Stanford University. “We need to start making benzos part of that.” 

An analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that only half of the states have laws in place that require prescription drug monitoring databases to track benzos, according to the article. Hopefully, more states will include anti-anxiety meds to the list of narcotics that are monitored. Some states, including Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and New York City have disseminated benzodiazepine prescribing guidelines ala that of prescription opioids.

“Our population of patients is experiencing extremely difficult withdrawals, and they have neurological injuries because of unsafe prescribing,” said Dr. Christy Huff, who is in recovery from benzo addiction and co-directs the Utah-based Benzodiazepine Information Coalition. “Doctors need to be informed that the medications should be prescribed for no more than two to four weeks. They were always meant to be short term.”

Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment

Anyone misusing Xanax, et al., should seek professional assistance when attempting to abstain and begin a journey of recovery. At Hope By The Sea, our clients undergo medically supervised detoxification to mitigate the risk of severe complications. Please contact us to learn more about our program.