Habits and Behaviors - Depressants

Depressants are the family of substances that slow down, or depress, bodily functions. They tend to make the user sleepy or sluggish. The following drugs fall in to the category of depressants.


Narcotics include opiates, the class of drugs derived from the poppy plant. Opiates have been used for thousands of years in Asia both for pleasure and medicinal uses. Natural opiates include morphine, codeine, and heroin. Synthetic opiates include codeine, oxycodone, and meperidine. They cause a wide variety of effects and side effects, such as pain relief, euphoria, respiratory depression, drowsiness, constriction of the pupils, nausea and vomiting, itching, and constipation. Narcotics tend to be easily addictive when used regularly because of their quick and powerful effects.

Narcotics can be ingested, injected, snorted or smoked. When opiates are smoked, it takes just five seconds for the drug to reach the brain. If a person addicted to narcotics is without that drug for even four to six hours after the narcotic use stops, he or she can feel the beginnings of withdrawal.

TOLERANCE TO NARCOTICS. Tolerance (the ability to resist the effects of something) develops quickly with the use of narcotics. Users must take more and more of the drug to get back to the desired effect. This can lead to overdose. Detoxification (cleansing the body of a toxic substance) is necessary for the user if one wants to return to a normal life. In order to detoxify and cleanse the body of the drug, withdrawal must occur. Withdrawal is the experience of ridding one's body of any substance it has become accustomed to. Withdrawal from opiates can cause the following symptoms: appetite suppression; nausea and vomiting; dilated pupils; gooseflesh; restlessness; intestinal spasm; abdominal pain; muscle spasms; kicking movements (reason for the expression, "kicking the habit"); diarrhea; increased heart rate and blood pressure; chills, hot flushes and sweating; irritability; insomnia; violent yawning; severe sneezing and runny nose; crying and tearing, nasal inflammation; and depressive moods and tremors. Medical treatment is sometimes sought because of extreme weight loss, dehydration, body chemistry disturbances, and stress on the heart. Without treatment, withdrawal symptoms can last from seven to ten days.

Anti-anxiety Drugs and Sleep Aids

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are in the sedative-hypnotic class of drugs and are usually prescribed by doctors for anxiety disorders (see Chapter 12: Mental Illness) or to induce sleep, although benzodiazepines are prescribed more often because they are safer. (It is important to remember that even if a doctor prescribes a drug for someone, that person can abuse the drug and become addicted to it.) In the 1960s and 1970s barbiturates began to seep into the black market (that is, they were being sold on the street without a doctor's prescription). Prescription names for barbiturates are Amobarbital, Pentobarbital, Butubarbital, Phenobarbital, Secobarbital, and Pento-secobarbital.

Anti-anxiety drugs and sleep aids are taken orally, in pill form. They cause drowsiness, relaxation, and a sense of well-being. Effects are similar to those of alcohol. If used over any extended period of time, barbiturates can cause extreme physical and psychological dependence. Tolerance to the euphoric effects occur quickly, so more and more must be used to develop the desired effect. Withdrawal causes dizziness, weakness, sleeplessness, anxiety, tremors, nausea, vomiting, delirium, delusions, and hallucinations.



Psychoactive drugs are those that affect brain functions, mood and behavior. Non-psychoactive drugs are substances that in normal doses do not directly affect the brain. There are several different categories of psychoactive drugs. There are both over-the-counter and prescription drugs that fall into the category of psychoactive agents so people should be aware that so-called street drugs (such as marijuana, heroin or cocaine) aren't the only drugs that cause addiction. It's important to remember that the effects of any drug depend on several variables. They are the amount taken at one time, the user's past drug experience, the method of administration (how the drug is taken—inhaled, smoked, swallowed, etc.), and the circumstances under which the drug is taken.

Overdose is common with these types of drugs. In fact, they are often the drugs of choice for people wanting to commit suicide. Symptoms of overdose are severe mood alteration; confusion and disorientation; slurred speech; impaired motor coordination; involuntary rapid eye movement from side to side; dilated pupils; and respiratory depression.

There are other drugs with barbiturate-like effects that are not classified as barbiturates, such as methaqualone, better known by the trade name Quaaludes, or the street name ludes. Quaaludes were thought to be a nonaddictive alternative to barbiturates when they were introduced in the 1960s. They turned out to have high abuse potential. They're very popular with college and high school students and have been illegal since 1984. They are often mixed with alcohol, creating a deadly combination. They produce sedation and sleep. Methoqualone induces headaches, hangovers, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, menstrual disturbances, dry mouth, nosebleeds, diarrhea, skin eruptions, numbness, and pain in the arms and legs. Eight to twenty grams can produce severe toxicity, coma, and death. Tolerance builds quickly, and withdrawal is much like detoxification from barbiturates.


Native Americans have used marijuana medicinally for thousands of years. Since it was made illegal in the United States, the use of marijuana for medical reasons has been extremely controversial. Extensive research has been done about the use of THC to treat people undergoing chemotherapy (a cancer treatment). It has been proven that THC is the best cure for the nausea and vomiting associated with this type of cancer treatment. There has also been research in the area of using medical marijuana as a treatment for the pain of glaucoma (an eye disease) and the wasting syndrome (chronic weight loss and the inability to substantially gain weight once it sets in) associated with AIDS. Less researched, but still potentially useful, is the use of marijuana for asthma relief, spasm relief, and anxiety reduction, and relief of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

As of 1998, thirty-four states had statutes on the books allowing derivatives (substances obtained from) of marijuana to be used in research and/or treatment. In 1996, Arizona passed Proposition 200 and California passed Proposition 215, effectively legalizing the use of medical marijuana. Although the use of medical marijuana has proven to have few side effects and tremendous benefits for ailing individuals, it is still a hugely controversial topic because of the illegality of "street" marijuana. However, the National Institute of Health (NIH) now supports the use of medical marijuana, and there is a group called National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) that organizes and lobbies in favor of changing the laws forbidding the use of medical marijuana, but they haven't been able to garner enough support to counter the antimedical marijuana groups.


Cannabis sativa is the plant that is used to produce both marijuana and hashish. Marijuana is the unprocessed, dried leaves, flowers, seeds, and stems of the plant. Hashish is stronger, and made from the resin (liquidy substance) in the plant. THC is the strongest psychoactive compound found in cannabis. There are many street names for marijuana: pot, grass, weed, bud, kind bud, herb, and reefer. The cigarettes used to roll and smoke the drug are sometimes called doobies, joints, spliffs, fatties, roaches or blunts. Marijuana can also be smoked in a pipe, or a water pipe, called a bong. Pot is the most widely used illicit drug.

The effects of pot often depend on the potency (strength) of the drug. The strength of marijuana has increased tremendously since the 1960s. The common effects of pot smoking are feelings of exhilaration, increased appetite (the "munchies"), relaxation and giddiness (including uncontrollable laughter), increase in heart rate, drowsiness, dry mouth and tongue (referred to as "cotton mouth"), impaired short-term memory, altered perception of time and space, dilated pupils, and paranoia (irrational fear for one's safety). The long-term adverse effects of marijuana are still unknown. Psychological dependence on the drug is common. Regular users begin to depend on smoking pot to relax, and even to sleep. Habitual users often smoke pot immediately upon awakening.

Despite being illegal, many drugs are readily available on school campuses. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Despite being illegal, many drugs are readily available on school campuses. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

Withdrawal from pot can cause irritability, decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, sweating, nausea and diarrhea. Hangovers are common the day after smoking pot. They are different from hangovers after drinking alcohol, however. Pot hangovers cause dizziness and inability to concentrate. Chronic (frequent) use can cause physical dependence. Marijuana is known to damage the respiratory system and to suppress the body's immune system. Pot can also make men infertile (unable to father children), and interfere with women's menstrual cycles. Children and teenagers (ages eleven to fifteen) who begin smoking before they have reached their full height can suffer stunted growth.

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