5/23/11 11:35am pst.
By Chrisopher Byron
You could argue that the deadliest “drug” in the world is the venom from a jellyfish known as the Sea Wasp, whose sting can kill a human being in four minutes—up to 100 humans at a time. Potassium chloride, which is used to trigger cardiac arrest and death in the 38 states of the U.S. that enforce the death penalty is also pretty deadly . But when it comes to prescription drugs that are not only able to kill you but can drag out the final reckoning for years on end, with worsening misery at every step of the way, it is hard to top the benzodiazepines. And no "benzo" has been more lethal to millions of Americans than a popular prescription drug called Klonopin.
Klonopin is the brand name for the pill known as clonazepam, which was originally brought to market in 1975 as a medication for epileptic seizures. Since then, Klonopin, along with the other drugs in this class, has become a prescription of choice for drug abusers from Hollywood to Wall Street. In the process, these Schedule III and IV substances have also earned the dubious distinction of being second only to opioid painkillers like OxyContin as our nation's most widely abused class of drug.
Seventies-era rock star Stevie Nicks is the poster girl for the perils of Klonopin addiction. In almost every interview, the former lead singer of Fleetwood Mac makes a point of mentioning the toll her abuse of the drug has taken on her life. This month, while promoting her new solo album, In Your Dreams, she told Fox that she blamed Klonopin for the fact that she never had children. “The only thing I’d change [in my life] is walking into the office of that psychiatrist who prescribed me Klonopin. That ruined my life for eight years,” she said. “God knows, maybe I would have met someone, maybe I would have had a baby.”
Nicks checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986 to overcome a cocaine addiction. After her release, the psychiatrist in question prescribed a series of benzos—first Valium, then Xanax, and finally Klonopin—supposedly to support her sobriety. “[Klonopin] turned me into a zombie,” she told US Weekly in 2001, according to the website Benzo.org, one of many patient-run sites on the Internet offering information about benzodiazepine addiction, withdrawal and recovery. Nicks has described the drug as a “horrible, dangerous drug,” and said that her eventual 45-day hospital detox and rehab from the drug was like “somebody opened up a door and pushed me into hell.” Others have described Klonopin’s effects as beginning with an energized sense of euphoria but ending up with a horrifying sense of sticking your tongue into an electric outlet, or suddenly feeling like your eyeballs are exploding or that your brain is on fire.
When benzodiazepines first came to market in the 1950s and 1960s, they were prescribed for a range of neurological disorders such as epilepsy as well as anxiety disorders like insomnia. But over time, a loophole in federal drug-control laws known as the “practice of medicine exception” has permitted psychiatrists and other physicians to prescribe the drugs for any perceived disorder or symptom imaginable, from panic attacks to weight control problems. In this way, Valium became infamous as "mother's little helper," the sedative used to pacify a generation of bored and frustrated suburban housewives.
Alcoholics and drug addicts are most likely to run into Klonopin during detox when it is used to prevent seizures and control the symptoms of acute withdrawal. Klonopin takes longer to metabolize and pass through the system than do other benzos, so in theory you don’t need to take it so frequently. But if you like the high it gives you, and thus keep increasing your dosage, the addictive effects can accumulate quickly and be devastating. The drug's label indicates that it is "recommended" for only short-term use—say, seven to 10 days—but many doctors are only too happy to refill prescriptions to meet this consumer demand. In the process, countless numbers of people swap one addiction for another—and, often, worse—one. Although benzodiazepines are rarely reported to be the cause of single-drug overdoses, they show up with great frequency in deaths from so-called combined drug intoxication, or CDI. Here's just a celebrity sampler:
In 1996, Actress Margaux Hemingway committed suicide by overdosing on a barbiturate-benzodiazepine cocktail. Weeks later, Hollywood movie producer Don Simpson (Beverly Hills Cop) also died from a benzo-based overdose. Klonopin was one of 11 different prescription drugs—all written by the same doctor—found in the body of Playboy centerfold model Anna Nicole Smith, who OD’d in 2007. Thereafter, the well-known Los Angeles author, David Foster Wallace, who was suffering from a profound depression when a doctor prescribed him Klonopin, went into his backyard on a September evening and hanged himself with a leather belt he had nailed to an overhead beam on his patio. Klonopin has been striking down more than just troubled celebrities, however. In 2008, reports began to surface of soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder who were dying in their sleep, the victims of a psych-med cocktail of Klonopin, Paxil (an antidepressant), and Seroquel (an antipsychotic) that is routinely prescribed by VA hospitals.
Hospital emergency room visits for benzodiazepine abuse now dwarf—by a more than a three-to-one margin—those for any illegal street drug. This trend has been increasing for at least the last five years. In 2006, the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published data showing that prescription drugs that year were the no. 2 reason for ER admissions to hospitals for drug abuse, behind illicit substances like heroin and cocaine. Now, as last October’s data shows, benzos, opioids and other prescriptions meds rank first.