International study of expert judgment on therapeutic use of benzodiazepines and other psychotherapeutic medications: IV. Therapeutic dose dependence and abuse liability of benzodiazepines in the long-term treatment of anxiety disorders. Academic Article Proceedings Review uri icon


  • Despite decades of relevant basic and clinical research, active debate continues about the appropriate extent and duration of benzodiazepine use in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders. The primary basis of the controversy seems to be concern among clinicians, regulators, and the public about the dependence potential and the abuse liability of benzodiazepines. This article reports systematically elicited judgments on these issues by a representative panel of 73 internationally recognized experts in the pharmacotherapy of anxiety and depressive disorders, a panel which was constituted by a multistage process of peer nomination. The criterion for inclusion at each stage was the nomination by at least two peers as one of the "professionally most respected physicians of the world with extensive experience and knowledge in the pharmacotherapy of anxiety and depressive disorders." Sixty-six respondents (90%) completed a comprehensive questionnaire covering a wide range of topics relevant to the therapeutic use of benzodiazepines and other medications that might be used for the same purposes. Overall, the expert panel judged that benzodiazepines pose a higher risk of dependence and abuse than most potential substitutes but a lower risk than older sedatives and recognized drugs of abuse. There was little consensus about the relative risk of dependence and abuse among the benzodiazepines. Differences between benzodiazepines with shorter and longer half-lives in inducing withdrawal symptoms are much less clear during tapered than during abrupt discontinuation. There was little agreement about the most important factors contributing to withdrawal symptoms and failure to discontinue benzodiazepines. The pharmacologic properties of the medication may be the most important contributors to withdrawal symptoms. In contrast, the clinical characteristics of the patient may be the most important contributors to failure to discontinue medication. The experts' judgment seems to support the widespread use of benzodiazepines for the treatment of bona fide anxiety disorders, even over long periods. The experts generally viewed dependence and abuse liability as clinical issues amenable to appropriate management, as for other adverse events related to therapy. However, more definitive clinical research on the remaining controversial issues is urgently needed to promote optimal patient care.

publication date

  • December 1999