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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturate Abuse Overview

Barbiturates are a group of drugs in the class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics, which generally describes their sleep-inducing and anxiety-decreasing effects.

Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because the correct dose is difficult to predict. Even a slight overdose can cause coma or death. Barbiturates are also addictive and can cause a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome.

History of use and abuse

  • Barbiturates were first used in medicine in the early 1900s and became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as treatment for anxiety, insomnia, or seizure disorders. They evolved into recreational drugs that some people used to reduce inhibitions, decrease anxiety, and to treat unwanted side effects of illicit drugs.
  • Barbiturate use and abuse has declined dramatically since the 1970s, mainly because a safer group of sedative-hypnotics called benzodiazepines are being prescribed. Benzodiazepine use has largely replaced barbiturates in the medical profession, with the exception of a few specific indications. Doctors are prescribing barbiturates less, and the illegal use of barbiturates has also substantially declined, although barbiturate abuse among teenagers may be on the rise compared with the early 1990s. Addiction to barbiturates, however, is uncommon today.

Types of barbiturates

  • There are many different barbiturates. The primary difference among them is how long their effects last. The effects of some of the long-acting drugs may last up to 2 days. Others are very short-acting. Their effects last only a few minutes.
  • Barbiturates can be injected into the veins or muscles, but they are usually taken in pill form. The street names of commonly abused barbiturates describe the desired effect of the drug or the color and markings on the actual pill.

Barbiturate Names

Generic Name

Street Name


Downers, blue heavens, blue velvet, blue devils


Nembies, yellow jackets, abbots, Mexican yellows


Purple hearts, goof balls


Reds, red birds, red devils, lilly, F-40s, pinks, pink ladies, seggy


Rainbows, reds and blues, tooies, double trouble, gorilla pills, F-66s

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