Many people have received this instruction. Millions around the globe have been issued a prescription for Valium, or diazepam as it’s known to chemists, or some other drug in the benzodiazepine family, to which Valium belongs. Other benzodiazepines (or benzos for short) include temazepam, nitrazepam, diazepam, oxazepam and alprazolam. And although there are slight differences between all, they each enhance the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA, which dials back the kinds of brain activity associated with rational thought and memory, resulting in a feeling of calm sedation. People on benzodiazepines generally feel more relaxed, which is why they’re prescribed for stress and insomnia.
This family of chemicals was first brought to market in 1960 by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, but it wasn’t until the release of Valium in 1963 that benzodiazepine use became widespread. By 1968, Valium was the most prescribed medication in the United States. In 1973 it was reported that Australian practitioners had scribbled out 7 million Valium prescriptions in that year alone. And by 1977, benzodiazepines were estimated to be the most prescribed medication globally.
Back then Valium was widely considered to be as effective as it was safe. Given the harms associated with barbiturates—which were the earlier overdose-prone sedative of choice—and the addictiveness of Miltown, Valium was painted as a wonder drug.