Starting in the early 1900’s, barbiturates were first prescribed for medical use. At the peak of their popularity, about 50 were marketed for human use of about more than 2,500 barbiturates that have been synthesized. The spectrum of effects induced by barbiturates includes central nervous system depression as well as mild sedation to coma. They have also been used as hypnotics, sedatives, anticonvulsants as well as anesthetics. What is unique to barbiturates is how quickly they produce these effects, and how long they last. They are typically known as ultra-short, short, intermediate and long-acting.
Schedule IV drug methohexital (Brevital), and Schedule III drugs thiamyl (Surital) and thiopental (Pentothal), are the ultrashort-acting barbiturates that induce anesthesia within about one minute after intravenous administration are in currently in medical use.
Schedule II short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates that include amobarbital (Amyta) pentobarbital (Nembutal), secobarbital (Seconal) and Tuinal (an amobarbital/secobarbital combination product) are the ones that abusers typically prefer.
It takes about 15 to 40 minutes after oral administration for these drugs to take effect and can last as much as six hours. Insomnia and preoperative sedation are common reasons to administer these drugs, and can be used as anesthesia and euthanasia by veterinarians.
Schedule IV barbiturates such as phenobarbital (Luminal) and mephobarbital (Mebaral) are long-acting, taking effect in about an hour and lasting as much as 12 hours. They are used for treatment of seizures as well as for daytime sedation.
Barbiturates remain a significant health risk, although not as common as some other drugs being abused today. A common use by abusers is to counteract the excitement and alertness obtained from stimulating drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.
Barbiturates are blamed for many drug abuse death in the 1970’s, and unfortunately many of the drug abusers today, may be too young to learn from this.