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[Benzodiazepines and forensic aspects]

Author(s): Michel L, Lang JP

Affiliation(s): Praticien Hospitalier, Chef de Service - SMPR, EPS Charcot, 30, avenue Marc-Laurent, BP 20, 78373 Plaisir cedex. lmichel@easyconnect.fr

Publication date & source: 2003-11, Encephale., 29(6):479-85.

Adverse effects of benzodiazepines are well known since the first one was used in 1958 (chlordiazepoxide). The literature collects study-cases or rarely controlled studies concerning side effects or paradoxical reactions to benzodiazepines. They mostly described drowsiness and behavioral disinhibition, including increased well-being feeling but also hostility, rage access with feeling of invulnerability, serious crimes and sometimes homicides. Delusional, manic, confusional or depressive states are also pointed out. Rate for aggressive behaviour is 0.3 to 0.7% but distinction should be done between accidental or "idiosyncratic" reaction and voluntary sought disinhibition, clearly more frequent. No benzodiazepine has any specificity for these adverse effects but pharmacology, doses, associated drugs (or alcohol) and psychopathology interact to produce hazardous psychic states. Pharmacology: GABA induces a decrease in serotonin compound and vigilance. Pharmacokinetic: first dose effect or over-dose effect, short half-life, lipophily, affinity, digestive absorption, active metabolites interact. Psychopathology: age, alcohol association, psychological status (high initial level of hostility, impulsivity, frustration, personality disorder and depressive status). External conditions: chronic illness, affective and professional frustrations, physical or psychic exhaustion contribute also. Some benzodiazepines (flunitrazepam, diazepam, clorazepate, triazolam, alprazolam, lorazepam, for example) are more often concerned for pharmacokinetics characteristics but also prescription habits. Forensic aspects should be considered in case of homicide. Especially, reality of benzodiazepines consumption and awareness of the potential paradoxical reaction should be precisely evaluated. Special focus on voluntary induced disinhibition has to be done for forensic considerations. Relationship but also crime facilitations are sometimes consciously sought. Some benzodiazepines have already been identified for this use: flunitrazepam, clorazepate but also triazolam and temazepam in UK, alprazolam in USA. Flunitrazepam is prohibited in USA and considered as narcotics in France. A Swedish study showed that violent acts were more frequent and serious in juvenile offenders taking flunitrazepam/alcohol than other young offenders staying in the same correctional institution. They recommended classification of flunitrazepam as narcotic. A study from Belgium with drug addicts concluded in the same way and asked for an increased information of professionals and a more efficient control of the delivery. Before concluding to idiosyncratic effect, and then possibly to penal irresponsibility, the forensic approach should consider: firstly the reality of the benzodiazepines absorption and implication in committing violence (urine test, chronology, amnesia); secondly, the association of unusual behaviour and converging circumstances (pharmacological, pharmacokinetic, psychopathology, external conditions); thirdly the consumer's knowledge of the disinhibition effect. In our prison practice, we have to be particularly cautious as population frequently associates personality disorder, drug addiction and high level of frustration related to penitential context. Special information should be given to inmates when benzodiazepines are prescribed, but more extensively, a preventive strategy should be adopted in general population.

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