From teen dealers selling counterfeit Xanax bars on social media to addicted college kids using the benzos to help with panic attacks or comedowns, VICE UK is investigating the rise of Britain's counterfeit Xanax use. Read more features in this series here and watch our new film about mental health and fake Xanax, 'Xanxiety: the UK's Fake Xanax Epidemic' here.
At the beginning of this year, when Labour MP Bambos Charalambous opened his parliamentary debate on the misuse of Xanax, he wanted to talk about an important consultation he'd had. It was with Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Malcolm Lader OBE, and it had deeply unsettled him.
"He said that Xanax was a powerful benzodiazepine, which, if overused, could lead to a constantly dazed, zombie-like state, and cause amnesia, depression, psychiatric disorders, rage and aggression," Charalambous told a predictably empty room (young people, drugs and mental health are not high on the political agenda). "Taking it with alcohol would result in faster metabolism absorption of the drug and an amplification of the symptoms. He added that it was highly addictive – more difficult to come off than heroin – with prolonged psychological and physical reactions of muscle tensions, tremors and perception disorders in relation to light, sound and noise."
As counterfeit versions of the Pfizer-brand benzodiazepine have increased in number on the black market, addictions have affected young people and teens in particular. There is very little information online on how to safely wean yourself off the drug, and only recently is the scale of the issue being realised among the adult population. If you are planning to taper off Xanax, see your GP for advice; side effects from going cold turkey or not tapering properly can include psychosis and seizures.
These are the stories of some of the young people who have tried to kick their Xan habit.
Matt, 19, Edinburgh
I’ve been clean for 215 days now. I feel like if it had gone a month, or even a week, longer then you and I might not be talking. In high school I was doing around 12mg, and I dropped out due to my addiction and mental health problems. I was doing nothing, and unemployed, and it probably went up to around 20 to 30mg a day. After such a long time, the reward centre in my brain was fairly messed up. I changed as a person and I probably wasn't the nicest to be around. I only talked about doing drugs and only wanted to see people who were also doing Xanax. I lost most of my family, several girlfriends, boyfriends, a lot of friends, and eventually it just came down to really wanting it all to stop because I'd lost so much.
Initially I tried tapering down to half my dosages, but it didn't go well and I'd relapse every month or so. I didn't go to the NHS for help because I'd become addicted to Xanax after being hooked on codeine, which I'd been prescribed at such a young age [by my NHS] GP. I went cold turkey, which I would never advise. The possible seizures were the least of my concern. It was more "I have to do this in order to get my friends back, in order to get my family back." I didn't leave the house multiple times because I was vomiting and almost delusional. That was probably the worst experience I had, because that was like sweating, nausea, vomiting, being moody.
"I feel like the real help is only there if you go looking for it. It's never when you're in these dark places where you're surrounded by people who are also using drugs."
A lot of my recovery was just coming to terms with how I felt about myself, and seeking pain relief, and seeking that kind of detachment from what was going on in life.
There's little to no official advice on how to get off Xanax. It's what you see on the internet. I feel like the real help is only there if you go looking for it. It's never when you're in these dark places where you're surrounded by people who are also using drugs – they're not offering for you to get off of it, they're not helping you at all. It's forums or Facebook [harm reduction] groups, like Sesh Safety – that's only when things start to get different. Straight up, I'd advise you to not take Xanax. It's a long path, worth avoiding.
Saul, 17, Northern Ireland
I started off smoking weed and taking Tramadol [the opioid painkiller], and then onto Xanax. I was just using Xans in the same way I would use weed: to relax. Everyone – especially my friends – did it. After only two weeks, I tried to come off and had problems breathing, and panic attacks. I went to my girlfriend’s house. She looked at me and said, "Are you OK?" I literally couldn’t breathe, I felt like my heart was going funny. I rang friends, like, "Mate, I think I'm going to die. What the fuck is going on?" They said that's just what happens when you come off them.
I had to go on holiday to see my dad in Wales, and obviously I couldn't take any Xanax overseas to Wales with me. I was hoping the time away would help me come off them. I couldn’t enjoy my time with my dad – I was just sitting there thinking, 'I need Xanax.' I didn't sleep for three days. The whole time I was there it was regular breathing problems, felt like I was going to pass out, headaches if I stood up too quick. I was having panic attacks. I'm still not completely off them. I literally just went down the road to meet a dealer to get more. I have mates who have successfully tapered, though.
Sesh Safety helped me so much. I'd tell others: don't go cold turkey. Don't try to come off them completely, because that can give you seizures if you've been on them long enough, and breathing problems, like I was having. Slowly taper off and then eventually stop them when you're taking a lower amount.
Dan, 17, Sussex
My GP didn't help me with my anxiety, so that's when I first started self-medicating with Xanax. It doesn't matter who you are, you’ll always think that you're in control – but it’s not in your control. I can kind of imagine a lot of people my age were dealing with this sort of similar situation and then were drawn to benzos.
I had to go through CAHMs [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services on the NHS], and it was quite a long process to even get Citalopram [an antidepressant], but the addiction really got me moving up the list. They were like, "Hang up a minute, we might need to actually give him something because look, he's self-medicating – this is getting really bad." That’s when they took me off that so they could introduce me to this [an antidepressant]. I'm sure quite a few kids are saying, "Oh, I get a bit nervous," and they don’t wanna prescribe anything, so they normally brush quite a lot of people away. It’s when you start to get into more dangerous territory that they now kind of go, "We need to do something about this."
Jenny*, Midlands, 18
I was mainly doing Xanax just by myself because I’m anxious and I like to be mellow. I’m pretty easy in my approach to drugs, but all I learned was to go too far with Xans. You don't go into taking them thinking, 'I'm going to become dependent on these.' I’d say they’re as addictive as heroin, but because they're a designer drug it's easier to brag about them and not be judged.
It's easy to marginalise and demonise drug addicts – they're spending all their money on feeling good all the time and they’re not doing anything with their lives – but when you’ve got that love/hate relationship with a drug like Xanax, that completely takes hold of you.
It takes a lot of willpower to break out of that. I couldn’t do it by myself. I went to the NHS about my mental health in general and I mentioned my addiction. The GP prescribed me antidepressants and told me to stop doing Xans if I'm going to be on this prescription. They put me in contact with some people who might be able to help. But the people I opened up to most about my addiction were my friends and my college counsellor – she really helped me with that. It was nice to have this voice of reason to just tell me about where my head's at.
Alice*, 18, London
When I first relapsed I went completely off them straight away, cold turkey, and I got really angry and was having cold and hot sweats, and shaking so much. [The next time I came off them] I did it gradually, because I’ve heard stories of people taking Xanax for [just] two weeks and then having a seizure and dying.
A teacher at college knew I was taking them. I just had to tell someone, get it out. She was so good, she really helped. We came up with a treatment plan together and a taper plan. Anxiety and benzos go hand in hand. When you start on benzos they then lead to anxiety, or you start with anxiety and then they lead on to benzos. It's a vicious cycle.
Alex, 24, Cardiff
I was a teen and it was great fun in the beginning, seemed glamourised, but it got dark quickly and I think that's something that people need to know. It starts off all rainbows and unicorns and excitement, but it definitely doesn’t last. I decided to stop during the degradation of one of my major friendships, which was down to his [Xanax] abuse and his memory loss. He had a psychotic episode, voices in his head. He had crazy hallucinations, he thought the police were chasing us. Horrible stuff. That was a huge wake up call for me that I needed to snap out of that lifestyle. I moved home with my parents. He stayed for a while, then had to go back with his parents as well.
For me personally, the GP wasn’t helpful. They should have given me, like, a taper plan and prescribed me some kind of benzo to take me down. But they were just talking about mindfulness and stuff like that. They had no idea of how deep I was in it. I used valium to taper myself off. It was horrible. I’d be rattling at night. So hot and so cold. Shaking. Massive headaches. I used to have sciatic pain, like shooting pains up my back and neck. It took six or seven months, and that was on a very harsh taper as well.
You've got to have a good support network around you, though. I think if you’ve got that then you should be OK. You can’t tell anyone to not do it., so I wouldn’t say to anyone not to try it. But I would say just take baby steps and be very aware of other people around you. Coming off, it’s the people that don’t have a support network that you’ve got to worry about.
Interviews condensed for brevity. Some names changed to protect identities.
If you are addicted to Xanax and would like to seek help, see your GP for advice, or for more specialised information contact Addaction.