Xanax plague leaves teens ‘dicing with death’

Pill-health: These “Red Devil” pills are a particularly potent form of the drug.

How to fix the Xanax crisis? A BBC report has found that misuse of the drug has led to more than 200 deaths since 2015. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to its potentially lethal effects.

By official figures, the anti-anxiety drug Xanax barely exists in the UK: prescribed only 14 times in 2016. But under the radar — through drug dealers on the dark web and social media, millions of counterfeit pills have flooded the country in recent years, sparking a health crisis that is hitting teenagers particularly hard.

Xanax is a type of tranquilliser called benzodiazepine. While common in America, it is rare in the UK: leading criminals to make bulk quantities of fake pills which are stronger, and potentially deadlier, than the real thing.

And thousands are ending up in the hands of British teenagers who are using the drug at parties, at home and even in schools.

Because Xanax is prescribed in the US, some think the pills are harmless. But this is not true. The drug is highly addictive, and withdrawal can cause panic attacks, psychosis and hallucinations. Overdoses or mixing it with alcohol and other drugs can be fatal. Public Health England has warned users that they are “dicing with death”.

Indeed, the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme has revealed that misuse of the drug has led to at least 204 Xanax-related deaths in the UK since 2015. Last year, six London schoolgirls were rushed to hospital after taking the drug at school.

Brad, a former teenage user who talked to the BBC about his experiences, said that over the course of his addiction he was slowly “losing it” — becoming violent and emotionless.

But why are teenagers getting sucked into this dangerous world? Some blame the ever-potent combination of celebrities and social media.

Xanax has been flaunted as a fashionable drug of choice by a long succession of stars. Justin Bieber has admitted using it, and rapper Eminem has sung about it: “I get these panic attacks, pop a Xanax, relax.”

In 2017, fellow rapper Lil Peep died from a Xanax-related overdose — mere hours after he posted a video to millions of Instagram followers of himself taking the pills.

So what can be done to stop the Xanax crisis?

Drug Bust

We must come down hard, some argue. The best way to prevent people from taking the drug is to punish those who deal it, and those caught using it improperly. Without decisive action, it will only get worse. Furthermore, we need to target the supply. Police have had some success busting online drug rings, and they must continue their good work.

Education is the key, others respond. Through celebrities and social media, drugs like Xanax are planting poisonous roots in youth culture. We must show users empathy and work to understand why they choose to use Xanax — only then can we effectively educate teenagers on the right choices to make.

You Decide

  1. Is it immoral to take drugs?
  2. How do you define the word “drug”?

Activities

  1. Consider the word “drug”. Make a list of all of the words you associate with the term. Discuss this list with your class. What words came up often? What does this suggest about how drugs are viewed?
  2. In the UK, the legal status of different drugs is classified under one of three levels: A, B or C. Research what each categorisation means. What would happen if somebody is caught in possession of each type of drug? What classification is given to Xanax? Do you think this classification is appropriate?

Some People Say...

“The best mind-altering drug is the truth.”

Lily Tomlin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Legitimate Xanax pills are manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. One study claims it is the third most popular psychiatric drug in the US, however, it cannot be obtained in the UK on the NHS. In January 2017, British police seized 50kg of alprazolam powder — the key ingredient to make fake Xanax and enough for 25 million pills.
What do we not know?
While some suppose a link between celebrities using Xanax and its rising use by British teenagers, it is difficult to establish a direct causal connection. However, there is evidence of drug dealers using social media websites like Instagram and Facebook to advertise drugs for sale.

Word Watch

Dark web
Area of the internet only accessible with specific software which allows users to remain anonymous. It is notorious for illegal activity and the trading of banned goods.
Flooded
Analysis by the BBC in 2018 showed that over 21 months between 2015 and 2017, more than 1.5 million fake Xanax pills were sold in the UK.
Stronger
For example, pills known as “Red Devils” (see image) were circulated in 2016 — at the time they were the strongest benzodiazepine available anywhere on the illegal market.
Withdrawal
Symptoms experienced when drug users stop taking the substances they are addicted to.
Psychosis
A serious mental illness in which people suffer a combination of four main symptoms: delusions, hallucinations, confusion and lack of self-awareness.
Overdose
A study has found that benzodiazepines contributed to around a third of all fatal drug overdoses in the US in 2014.
Success
For more information on how the police are taking down drug dealers on the dark web, see the BBC Three link in Become An Expert.