Benzo use going down, risks still exist


HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – It’s a topic not talked about much – the use of benzodiazepines. You may know them as Xanax, Klonopin, or Ativan. But are you aware of the potential risks when these medicines are taken?

When Brad Pershing was prescribed Xanax in college, for anxiety, he says he was never told how dangerous it is when mixed with other substances.

“It would give me that calming feeling to where my respiratory levels would be super slow, and to pretty much not breathing,” Pershing said. “Quickly I learned that use it as an enhancer, as a dangerous enhancer, for whatever substance I was using.”

Xanax is a benzodiazepine, like Klonopin, Ativan, and Valium and is typically prescribed for insomnia and anxiety. Marketed in the 1960’s as a nerve-pill and called “Mother’s Little Helper,” it’s addictive and the National Institute of Health states misuse of benzodiazepines can lead to dependency, driving impairment, and death related to overdose or withdrawal.

“Not many people talk about benzodiazepines but they have a real, a real risky effect when you take them,” Pershing said.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny is over the Cabell Huntington Health Department he explains the risks with the senior population taking benzo’s, where short-term memory loss is also a side-effect. 

“People can actually stop breathing. If you stop breathing for long enough, you die,” Kilkenny said. “An older person who is taking benzodiazepines may appear to be confused, it increases risks for falls and is generally not recommended.”

According to the West Virginia Pharmacy Board, in 2018, more than 51 million benzodiazepines were dispensed in the state. While the number of pills being dispensed is getting lower, 51 million pills is still enough for almost everyone in the City of Huntington to take three pills a day, every day, for an entire year. 

US attorney Mike Stuart says his office prosecutes, and will continue to prosecute those who don’t follow the law.

“We track all of those and we’ll investigate each of those. It’s not unusual at all for this office to prosecute a prescriber for not following the law,” Stuart said.

Stuart notes there’s an additional problem.

“We’ve got doctors, we’ve got nurses, we’ve got professionals who go home with a glass of wine and pop a benzo and enjoy the evening and think that’s just fine,” Stuart said. “It’s not fine. It just adds to this whole drug culture that we have in America today.” 

While the culture of benzodiazepine use is slowly getting better, knowing its effects, and how it works with other substances, could potentially be life-saving.

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