One pill makes you sleepy and one pill makes you calm

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

Especially in old age, medications designed to treat acute symptoms are often taken chronically. In the absence of other solutions, doctors often continue to prescribe addictive pills, knowing full well that the patients would seek out other sources to get their fix. Part one of a look at the legal addiction scene.

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A few years ago, a woman entered a doctor's office with the aim of getting her addiction under control. Her consumption was destroying her financially. However, it was not the substance itself that was becoming too expensive – benzodiazepines (a group of psychoactive tranquillisers and sleeping pills, see infobox) are comparatively cheap and 40 percent of their price is reimbursed by the health insurance. No, her problem was the taxi fares that were piling up. Every morning she drove to a new doctor's office to pick up her prescription for the day from different doctors, which they thought they were prescribing for a whole month. She knew: Driving under the influence of so many so-called "benzos" would be extremely dangerous. But stopping is difficult – and given the level of her consumption – and dangerous. An extreme case study that illustrates the lengths people will go to in order to get their fix after addictive drugs, often originally prescribed correctly but mistakenly never stopped.

"About one per cent of the population regularly takes more than the medically appropriate dose [of benzodiazepines] over a long period of time, " says Dr Jean-Marc Cloos, the Medical Director of the Centre Hospitalier du Nord (CHdN). In his professional career, he has specialised in the effects of these drugs and wrote his PhD thesis on them. Those pills were originally developed for the short-term treatment of sleep and anxiety disorders. According to Cloos, for example, it is not a major problem to take a sedative for acute fear of flying if you are not a frequent flyer. The trouble starts when you don't stop taking them afterwards. "Doctors have to be aware that one in five patients who are prescribed benzos will never stop taking them, " Cloos emphasises.

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