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Sedatives, also called hypnotics andtranquilizers, are drugs that reduce the activity level of neurons. Typical results are sluggish movement, relaxed muscles, and a sleepy state of consciousness. Hypnotics produce an altered state, by definition. Tranquilizers may produce sleepiness alone. Both hypnotics and tranquilizers can be categorized as sedatives, because both have the effect of calming people or relaxing muscles.

What effects do sedatives have? What mixture makes tranquilizers particularly dangerous?

Many sedatives are potentiated by alcohol, meaning the combination of the two drugs produces an effect far greater than their individual effects. A famous case history is that of Karen Ann Quinlan, who mixed alcohol and tranquilizers at a party and went into a permanent coma. Later she became the focus of a landmark court case about the right to die. When it became obvious she would never recover from her coma, her parents asked the courts for permission to turn off her respirator. The respirator was unplugged, but she started breathing on her own and continued to do so for nearly 10 years. Her brain damage had been caused by profound depression and oxygen loss caused by a combination of alcohol and sedatives.

One of the first sedatives to be discovered and widely used was phenobarbital. In the early 20th Century it was commonly used as a general anesthetic, to keep patients unconscious during surgery. Phenobarbital is an example of a barbiturate (a word with two pronunciations: bar-bit-TUR-ate or bar-BIT-tur-ate). Barbiturates are still used sometimes for general anesthetic during operations and occasionally by people with epilepsy when milder drugs fail to control seizures.

What is a "Mickey Finn"?

In an old book or movie you may hear a reference to a Mickey Finn. This term used in the early decades of the 1900s to refer to an alcoholic drink with barbiturates secretly added. The effect was to knock a person out: another example of potentiation.

What is PCP and what effects can it produce?

PCP (phencyclidine) or "angel dust" is a potent tranquilizer originally developed for veterinarians to use with animals. There was a time when PCP abuse was common. Its effects were somewhat unpredictable. Users might have no trouble with it during repeated use of the drug then suddenly have a profoundly negative reaction to it. Repeated use led to mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and occasional violent episodes.

Musician James Brown once had a bad reaction to PCP during which he led police on a multi-state car chase, ending only when they shot out the wheels on his car. Emergency Room personnel of the late 1970s dreaded the "whack attacks" in which people on PCP simply went wild. A doctor commented, "When I hear it takes six people to hold a guy down, I know it's PCP" (Isaacs, 1978). PCP use peaked in the mid-1980s then fell sharply after laws were passed limiting the manufacture of its main ingredient. By 1991 only 1.2% of high school seniors in the United States had used PCP within the preceding year (Freiberg, 1991).

What is methaqualone?

Methaqualone is a muscle relaxant. It was a commonly abused drug in the early 1980s. "Ludes" (a term derived from the brand name "Quaaludes") were cheap to manufacture and easy to conceal. Like PCP abuse, methaqualone abuse tapered off dramatically after government officials limited the manufacture of its main ingredient.

What did police films of methaqualone users reveal?

Methaqualone is often categorized as a hypnotic because it produces an altered, trance-like state of mind. In small doses it is useful for preventing muscle spasms; in larger doses it produced a numbing effect. Police videos of drivers on methaqualone showed its profound influence on motor coordination. People intoxicated on alcohol have a hard time walking a straight line; people on methaqualone often could not even walk in a forward direction.

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