Driving Under The Influence of Drugs
Depressants and Driving

Depressants and Driving: The Effects of Depressants, Fines & Penalties

Updated July 13, 2019

This module analyses commonly abused depressant drugs which will endanger your health and ability to drive safely. We also discuss the likely penalties you will receive if you are caught misusing one of these strictly controlled substances. Depressant drugs slow you down, resulting in tiredness, numbness, slowed breathing, reduced heart rate and a false sense of happiness and calm.

Various types of drugs fall within the depressant category. These include scheduled drugs which are legal for medical use under certain circumstances, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines and pain-relieving opioids like morphine and codeine. Certain mild depressants, like antihistamines, can be purchased over the counter. Heroin (another opioid) is perhaps the most dangerous and notorious depressant drug. It’s schedule 1 status means it has no medical applications and can only be used for scientific experimentation.

How do depressants work?

While most depressants have a similar sedative effect on the central nervous system, the precise biological mechanisms involved in creating this effect will vary based on the type of drug. For instance, synthetic depressants such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABAs primary function is to inhibit neuron activity. In simple terms, this means it slows down and “quietens” the signals passed between neurons which allow the central nervous system to control the body. As a result, all bodily processes will slow down, leading to slower heart rate, slower respiration, slower thought processes and various other impairments.

Opioids (both plant-derived and synthetic) work by attaching themselves to opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body. In doing so, the opioids block pain signals and inhibit messages sent from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body, thus, slowing down bodily processes. They also activate parts of the cell responsible for pleasure, creating a pleasant feeling of calm and general well-being.

Heroin

Heroin is an illegal, destructive and incredibly addictive drug made from the sap of opium poppies. Users are susceptible to becoming physically dependent on the drug very quickly and will suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to stop taking it. Despite its classification as an illegal schedule 1 drug, incidences of heroin abuse around the United States continue to rise with each passing year.

Data compiled during the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2016 shows that roughly 948,000 Americans reported using heroin at least once in the previous 12 months. Most of these respondents were young adults, aged between 18 and 25 years old. Heroin awareness campaigns in schools could be responsible for the decline in people aged 12 to 17 years old using heroin that year, as opposed to previous years. Nevertheless, the problem is still growing. The NSDUH report showed that 170,000 people used heroin for the first time in that 12-month period, a significant increase in the number of new-users who responded to the 2006 survey (90,000).

The potential for overdosing on heroin is high. Dealers frequently “cut” heroin with other ingredients to make their product go further. As a result, it is very difficult to gauge the strength and potency of the drug you are using. National deaths caused by heroin overdose have sky-rocketed over the past few decades. In 1999, a total of 1,960 heroin overdose deaths were recorded. Whereas 2017 saw a staggering 15,482 deaths.

How is heroin taken?

Heroin is usually sold as a white or brown-colored powder and is often not pure, but rather mixed with other bulking agents such as sugar, starch or powdered milk. Pure heroin is a fine white powder, which is usually snorted or smoked. “Black tar” heroin is dark colored and can be sticky or hard in texture. Its darker color results from impurities left behind by crude processing methods. Black tar heroin is generally dissolved or diluted and injected directly into veins or muscles.

Injected heroin carries additional risks, as users often share needles. This can result in chronic liver diseases like hepatitis and or HIV being transferred from person to person. In addition, regularly injecting oneself in the same areas can lead to skin sores, infections and collapsed veins.

The Effects of Heroin

People who use heroin commonly report an almost immediate and powerful “rush” of pleasure, as the drug converts to morphine and binds to the opioid receptors in their brain. This may be accompanied by warmth and tingling in the skin, dry mouth and a feeling of having “heavy” limbs. It is also not uncommon for the drug to cause extreme nausea, vomiting and itchy skin. For several hours after the initial effects wear off, the user will be extremely drowsy, their heartbeat will be slow, and their respiration will be shallow. If too much of the drug is taken or the user has a bad response, this effect may be powerful enough to completely stop the heart, or breathing, resulting in a coma or death. It is worth noting that the risk of overdose increases the longer a person uses heroin, as they will need to take larger and larger doses in order to achieve the same pleasurable effect, as their tolerance increases.

Long-term heroin use – if it does not kill you – will result in irreparable damage and changes to the structure of the brain. Studies have show that habitual heroin use leads to a deterioration of brain tissue, which may permanently impair decision making skills, the ability to respond appropriately to stress and the ability to control one’s own behavior.

Alongside nicotine, heroin is one of the most addictive drugs. Unfortunately, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are considerably more severe than nicotine withdrawal. In extreme cases, coming off heroin “cold-turkey” can even be fatal. Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Acute muscle and bone pain
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle spasms and twitches
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe gastrointestinal pain
  • Sweating
  • Cold flushes and shivering

Indeed, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are so difficult to cope with, that long-term users rarely manage to get off the drug without medical intervention. Usually, this would involve replacing heroin with Methadone, a synthetic and somewhat less harmful opioid.

Heroin’s effects on your driving ability

Using heroin renders a person physically incapable of driving safely at any time. After taking the drug, you will either be immediately chronically impaired by its sedative effect, suffering with acute drowsiness as an after-effect or dealing with the symptoms of withdrawal.

When you are under the influence of heroin, your muscle coordination and movement will be impaired. Your body will not respond as quickly as you need it to, resulting in a slower overall reaction time. The tiny muscles in your eyes will be affected and you will feel incredibly sleepy, making it impossible to scan the roadway and maintain concentration. In addition, your cognitive skills be impaired. You will not be able to process information, understand risk, make sensible decisions, and you will not care about the fact that you’re in danger.

Penalties for possessing heroin

Heroin is a schedule 1 controlled drug, as it is extremely dangerous, addictive and has no medical applications. As a result, federal and state penalties for possessing, manufacturing, distributing or trafficking heroin are incredibly severe. Heroin-related offenses are often dealt with in federal court, though state provisions may also apply. A person caught with a very small amount of heroin may escape with a simple possession conviction.

Penalties for Heroin Possession


First time possession.

Up to 1 year in prison and a minimum fine of $1,000.


Second time possession.

Between 15 days and 2 years in prisons and a minimum fine of $2,500.


Further possession convictions.

Between 90 days and three years in prison and a minimum fine of $5,000.


In addition to these penalties, offenders may be charged civil penalties of up to $10,000.

State-imposed penalties for heroin possession vary, but usually include a prison sentence of up to 7 years and a fine of up to $50,000. If you are caught with enough heroin that law enforcement officers reasonably believe you were intending to supply it, you could be imprisoned for life.

Medicinal opiates

Many synthetic and refined opiates are prescribed as painkillers and are thought to be safe under medical supervision. These depressant drugs typically fall into schedule 2, as they still have a high potential for addiction, abuse and can be very harmful when used improperly. Such opiate drugs include:

  • Morphine and codeine: The isolated mind-altering chemicals in opium poppies, commonly used for relief of acute or chronic pain.
  • Hydrocodone: A semi-synthetic opioid painkiller, sold under several brand names including Vicodin, Lorcet and Lortab. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, hydrocodone was the most widely prescribed medicinal opiate in the United States from 2007 to 2016.
  • Oxycodone: A semi-synthetic opiate, commonly prescribed as a pain-reliever. It is the active ingredient in the pain medications Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan and Tylox. Oxycontin specifically is known to have a high potential for physical dependency and abuse when used long-term.
  • Methadone: A synthetic opioid primarily used in the treatment of heroin addiction.

Like heroin, these medicinal opiates have a powerful sedative effect on the body. They may result in drowsiness, slowed heart rate, shallow breathing, poor muscle coordination and limited cognitive ability, especially when taken without adherence to strict medical guidelines. If you are prescribed one of these drugs, be sure to discuss restrictions with your doctor and find out whether you can still drive safely while taking it.

These drugs are not illegal when prescribed by a medical practitioner. However, possessing a medicinal opiate without a prescription, or unlawfully selling a medicinal opiate is illegal and carries strict federal and state penalties.

Medicinal opiates are incredibly dangerous, despite being approved for use in the treatment of many conditions and illnesses. In 2017, it is estimated that 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance abuse disorders linked to opioid painkillers. In the same year, there were at least 47,600 overdose deaths caused by opioids. That equates to roughly 130 deaths every day.

Tranquilizers

Tranquilizers are a type of depressant drug prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, depression, seizures and muscle spasms. The two most common types of tranquilizer are benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Many tranquilizers are very addictive and as such are only available via prescription and will be subject to refill and repeat-prescription limitations. Despite this, these drugs are often bought, sold and taken illegally.

Benzodiazepines

Sometimes referred to as “benzos”, benzodiazepines are a type of synthetic nervous system depressant. This drug is frequently prescribed under the brand names Xanax, Ativan, Valium and Klonopin. Benzodiazepines are useful in the treatment of many debilitating conditions but must only be taken under medical supervision, due to their strong potential for physical dependency, psychological addiction and overdose. In 2017, benzodiazepines were involved in over 11,500 overdose deaths in the United States. Many of these fatalities also involved opioids.

Effects of Benzodiazepines

Due to benzodiazepine’s GABA-enhancing action, its short-term effects include drowsiness, anxiety-relief and feelings of euphoria or intense pleasure. Even when taken under strict medical supervision, benzodiazepines can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Memory impairments
  • Cognitive limitations
  • Mood disturbances
  • Tremors

In extreme cases, users can suffer with liver damage, seizures, extreme muscle weakness and severe itching. The potential for these negative effects increases with higher doses and long-term use. Abuse of benzodiazepines can eventually lead to severe depression, suicidal thoughts and cognitive impairment.

Barbiturates

Barbiturates are a type of GABA-enhancing sedative drug, once commonly prescribed in the treatment of sleep disorders, anxiety and other psychological conditions. These days, benzodiazepines are generally prescribed instead of barbiturates. Some common barbiturate drugs are Seconal, Amytal, Butisol, Nembutal and Donnatal. Barbiturates are subject to strict drug control measures due to their high potential for addiction and overdose. Unfortunately, they are still widely misused.

Effects of Barbiturates

Barbiturates inhibit nervous system function in a similar way to alcohol. After taking barbiturates, users generally experience reduced inhibitions, feelings of euphoria, lethargy, sleepiness and decreased anxiety. Abusing barbiturates can result in:

  • Increased light and sound sensitivity
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Insomnia
  • Memory impairment
  • Mood disturbances
  • Slurred speech
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Paranoia
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Hallucinations

It is relatively easy to overdose on barbiturates, due to the drug-group’s low therapeutic index, meaning that the difference between a therapeutic dose and a toxic dose is very small. At high doses or after long-term use, barbiturates can cause organ damage, coma, respiratory failure and death.

How do tranquilizers affect driving ability?

It is only safe to drive while under the influence of a tranquilizer if you have been issued the drug via prescription AND your doctor has told you that you can keep driving while using them. Even then, you must be careful not to exceed the stated dose and keep a close eye on your mental and physical state. If you do not feel mentally or physically alert – do not drive!

Abusing tranquilizers will result in drowsiness, poor coordination and slower reaction time. This will leave you less able to react to hazards and changing roadway conditions in a timely and safe manner. In addition, tranquilizers can cause perception distortions, poor tracking ability and memory impairments. While driving, this will impair your ability to gather visual information about the roadway environment and process that information effectively. You are unlikely to spot dangerous situations and even if you do, you are unlikely to respond to them appropriately.

Penalties for possessing tranquilizers

Any person caught in possession of tranquilizers like benzodiazepines and barbiturates without a prescription will be prosecuted by the state or federal government, depending on the severity of the offense. The penalties for illegally possessing a tranquilizer vary greatly state-by-state and depend of the type of drug involved. Here are some examples of penalties which may be incurred for illegal possession of benzodiazepines:

New Jersey: Illegal possession of Valium will incur a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail, if the offender was in possession of four pills or less. When in possession of more than four pills, the offender may be fined up to $200,000 and sentenced to up to five years in state prison.
Florida: Illegal possession of Xanax (as little as one pill) will incur up to 5 years in prison for a first offense and up to ten years for a second offense. The offender may also have their driving privileges revoked and be subject to other penalties.

Legal does not equal safe

Taking any depressant drug will impair your ability to drive and when used improperly, will ultimately be harmful to your physical health and mental well-being. Illegal drugs like heroin are especially dangerous as it is impossible to know how strong each dose is and what the effects of taking it will be. However, drugs that can be legally used for medical purposes are not any less dangerous. Legal does not equal safe, particularly when the drugs in question are being used recreationally, without medical supervision.

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