Psychotropic Drugs

Psychotropic Drugs


Psychotropic drugs are a loosely defined grouping of agents that have effects on psychological function and include the antidepressants, hallucinogens, and tranquilizers. They are all compounds that affect the functioning of the mind through pharmacological action on the central nervous system. Psychotropic drugs are ubiquitous in our society and encompass both prescription psychiatric medications and illegal narcotics, as well as many over the counter remedies. Because these compounds affect human behavior, there is much suspicion, misunderstanding, and controversy surrounding their use. Sedative drugs first appeared in the late 1800s. They were followed by barbiturates and amphetamines in the early 1900s. But it was drugs such as chlorpromazine hydrochloride (Thorazine) and lithium, introduced in the 1950s that dramatically affected psychiatric medicine. Medicine essentially recognizes four main psychotropic drug categories: antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antianxiety agents and antidepressants.

Antipsychotics include chlorpromazine, which was released in 1954 for the treatment of schizophrenia. Originally designated as a major tranquilizer, it was also found to be effective in subduing the hallucinations and delusions of psychotic patients. Since then, other antipsychotics, including haloperidol (Haldol) and clozapine (Clozaril) were developed for the treatment of various kinds of psychosis. Mood stabilizers were first recognized following Australian psychiatrist John F. J. Cade's 1949 discovery of the beneficial effects of lithium on manic-depressive disorder. Patients with schizophrenia, however, did not respond to lithium, leading psychiatrists to a degree of diagnostic precision that was previously not possible. Recently, some antiepileptic medicines—valproic acid (Depakene) and carbamazepine (Epitol, Tegretol) have also been used to treat manic-depressive disorder. Barbiturates were widely prescribed before the 1960s to relieve anxiety, but were found to be highly sedating and addictive and did not always work successfully. Chlordiazepoxide (e.g. Librium) and the other benzodiazepine agents developed from the 1960s to the 1980s rapidly replaced barbiturates. Antidepressants are possibly the most widely used psychotropic drugs in the United States. In any given 6-month period, about 3 percent of adult Americans experience severe depression. For the millions whose depressed mood becomes a clinical syndrome, though, psychotropic therapy is one way to relieve the symptoms. The tricyclic imipramine hydrochloride (Tofranil), developed during the late 1950s and introduced during the early 1960s, was the first of the now-available antidepressants and still is often prescribed. Research has progressed considerably since then and current theories attribute depression to psychological causes (e.g. low self-esteem, important losses in early life, history of abuse) and biological causes (e.g. imbalance of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine; disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle) as well as experiential and social factors. The various classes of antidepressants, tricyclics, MAOIs, serotonin-specific agents, and individual drugs including nefazodone (Serzone), mirtazapine (Remeron), venlafaxine (Effexor), and bupropion hydrochloride (BuSpar) target the biological causes. At present, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) hold center stage, and fluoxetine hydrochloride (Prozac) is in the spotlight. The result of years of focused research and design, fluoxetine was rapidly accepted and prescribed to millions within a few months after its introduction in December 1987.

Psychotropic drugs and law enforcement. Though much of the research and understanding of psychopharmacology comes from the field of medicine and psychiatry, there are of course, other areas where psychotropic drugs have been used, ranging from illegal recreational use to the possibility of applying them as agents of "mind control." The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Crime and Narcotics Center monitors, reviews, and delivers information about international trafficking in illegal drugs and international organized crime to the nation's leaders and law enforcement agencies. Former Director of Central Intelligence William Webster created what became today's DCI Crime and Narcotics Center in April 1989. The center is staffed by people from the 13 agencies making up the US Intelligence Community, including the CIA, as well as from law enforcement agencies. The Crime and Narcotics Center's staff are responsible for estimating the amount of illegal drugs, mainly coca, opium poppy, and marijuana, produced around the world. They also assist law enforcement agencies to break up drug and organized crime groups and help law enforcement agencies detect and capture illegal drug shipments.

The CIA's interest in psychotropic drugs does not end in law enforcement, however. MK-ULTRA was a CIA "mind-control" project backed during the Cold War years. Because the Soviets were supposedly researching a drug that could be used as a "truth serum," the CIA set out to beat them with heavily-funded research into consciousness altering drugs, and techniques of behavioral control. More recently, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York by al-Qaeda, there has been some discussion among some CIA and FBI staff, including William Webster, about the use of "truth drugs" to extract information from uncooperative terrorist suspects. United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted that narcoanalysis is not used by United States military and intelligence personnel, but suggested that other countries have made use of the technique in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. One such drug is sodium pentothal, which is used as a sedative and anaesthetic during surgery. It depresses the central nervous system, slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Patients on whom the drug is used as an anaesthetic are usually unconscious less than a minute after it enters the veins. Because of its effectiveness as a sedative, it was also one of the first of three drugs to be used by the U.S. prison system during executions. In milder doses, the drug affects people such that they often become more communicative and share their thoughts without hesitation. Despite its name, however, sodium pentothal will not make a person tell the truth against their will; a recipient is only likely to lose inhibitions and therefore, may be more likely to volunteer the truth.

According to conventions set forth by the United Nations, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies disavow the practice of physically coercing or drugging prisoners, but point to the fact that many other countries around the world utilize drugs in interrogations. U.S. officials prefer to use psychology and investigative knowledge to extract information. Authorities are officially focused on making sure they obtain information without violating a suspect's constitutional rights because they do not want to jeopardize having such evidence ruled inadmissible in court. In attempting to prevent future acts of terrorism, however, authorities are sometimes focused more on obtaining quality information than they are on preparing cases for court, thus, in the present political situation, the FBI may be considering more aggressive methods of interrogation of terrorist suspects that might involve the use of psychoactive drugs.

A recent alleged use of a psychotropic drug by the U.S. was reported in the Russian newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda. In April 2001, it was reported that U.S. spies used drugged cookies and drinks to break the will of a Russian defense employee and recruit him as an agent. The employee was identified as a 58-year-old worker of a defense ministry facility near Zhukovsky air base, the Russian air force's top flight test center near Moscow. Whether accurate or not, the article illuminates the fact that the U.S. and Russia continue to show interest in spying on each other, despite better relations, and that psychotropic drugs may still play a part in espionage.



Maxmen, Jerrold S., and Nicholas G. Ward. Psychotropic Drugs: Fast Facts, 2nd ed. N.p., Norton & Company, 1995.


Romanko, J. R. "Truth Extraction." New York Times Magazine. (November 19, 2000): 54.


Chemistry: Applications in Espionage, Intelligence, and Security Issues
CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)

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