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 British counterfeit Xanax use. Read more features in this series and watch VICE UK's new film about mental health and counterfeit Xanax, 'Xanxiety in the UK' here.
About five years ago, London-based DJ Oneman kept running into the same problem. After he first took Xanax, “I found myself asking everyone where I could get it in London – it was a nightmare to get a hold of in this country back then”, he says now, over the phone. “Eventually I found someone, and I kept going back. I was taking probably two bars a day at this point” – one “bar” being one 2mg tablet – “one in the afternoon and one at night. I began to live at night; I didn't want it to be daylight ever, because then people couldn't bother me and I could get on with just taking drugs and DJing in my room”.
He then lived with a Xanax addiction that lasted four years and culminated in a stint at rehab last year. Recently, he shared his experiences with the prescription drug in now-deleted tweets. In the wake of rapper Lil Peep’s death from an accidental Xanax and fentanyl overdose and rapper Lil Xan quitting the pills he's named after, Oneman hopes to inspire a conversation about the drug’s negative impact. As well as speaking to him, I’ve talked with a younger generation of teenage British musicians who stand at the intersection of the drug’s use, its relationship to a certain kind of rap and its aesthetic popularity online. And those conversations have made it clear that this is a pertinent, necessary discussion to be having across the UK.
To be clear, Xanax – the trade name of anti-anxiety medication Alprazolam – can be taken moderately by prescription. Although Oneman doesn’t doubt that some people take it above-board, this wasn’t the case for him. “I've never suffered from anxiety or social anxiety,” he tells me. “I wasn't the kind of person who needed to be taking this drug, but it felt good. It was warm and it was fuzzy and I really liked it – I can’t really explain it other than it became addictive instantly. I think one of the reasons I took it was because a lot of the juke music and Chicago rap at the time referenced Xanax a lot – Lil Durk, Chief Keef, Rashad. I didn't have a reason to take it apart from the music I was listening to; I wanted to know what it was about, and I think it's the same for a lot of people.”
He sets out a complicated premise. Anyone whose worried parents have scanned a headline about recent tragic deaths at festivals will know about the links made in people’s heads between music and drugs. We’ve even asked scientists and researchers why some genres of music seem to pair closely with pingers, MDMA or weed. Oneman mentions rap, which has long inspired sensationalist fears about the places where partying, drug dealing, blackness and criminality seem to collide. From the days of Tipper Gore’s fears about weed in lyrics to ‘Soundcloud rap’ and Future's molly and Percocet bars today, drugs have (as they did in rock, and before that, the blues) walked hand-in-hand with the genre’s public image.
Speaking to Billboard magazine last year, Vic Mensa ruminated on how that trend has most recently manifested in a link between prescription drugs and hip-hop. “At this point in time, I feel that the relationship of hip-hop and mental health and mental illness has become just blatantly obvious from a depressed, self-medicating standpoint but also strangely glorified in that these artists are taking Xanax pills on Instagram. Like, in photographs. And have created their entire wave around prescription drugs. Not only is it a piece of the music, it’s the backbone, it’s the driving force behind the image and the music.”
And so ‘Xanax rap’ has turned into a sub-genre of its own, with an accompanying aesthetic that’s found a lyrical home in the UK among collectives such as 616/ DVL GNG, Reservoir and 237. As 22-year-old Sha Rez, a member of both Reservoir and 237, puts it: “If I'm going to the studio it’s not necessarily there, but if you're going to a show or something, more time there will be a guy with some Xans on him. For some people it's recreational, but then for others it’s not. They use it as an escape or to deal with their issues.” Does he think there is an aesthetic element to it? “I've seen people take it on the daily in a way that’s obviously not good for them; there are people popping them on their Insta stories and shit like that. The way they pop them is like, 'I'm popping Xannys, it's cool,' but we all know if you're popping them every day it's not really just for fun, is it?”
Kish, 21, another member of the Reservoir and 237 collectives agrees. “I think it's naturally an aesthetic thing on some level because of how it's become popular: through music. But because it's a drug it literally has effects on people. While it is an aesthetic choice, at the same time once people know how the drug affects them and what it does for them, it becomes more of a personal relationship. I don't think anyone can dictate whether it's aesthetic once a person is into it, but I do think the aesthetics play a large part in how it's being taken.”
Last month, The Guardian revealed that the UK now accounts for 22 percent of all global Xanax sales on the dark web, prompting warnings from doctors, youth workers and MPs. Like booze, Xanax is a central nervous system depressant. There’s been enough recently written about its effects, but the main thing to consider now is how we’ve seen a huge uptick in off-brand versions – some sold for about £1 to £2 per bar – marketed online.
This raises two other main areas of concern. One is that counterfeit pills, which can contain higher doses of alprazolam or other unknown chemicals such as the often-deadly fentanyl, saturate the market. The other arises from mixing the drug with other drugs and alcohol, behaviour that often leads to dangerous blackouts that can result in complete memory loss and last for days at a time. Sha Rez tells me he’s stopped taking the drug because of similar experiences, and Oneman recounts how, while drinking and popping pills one night, he woke up the next day to find out that he'd taken nine more pills with no memory of having done so. The danger in these blackouts is not only potentially hurting yourself or doing stupid shit and not being able to remember it, but in that people forget what they’ve just done and double-dose more pills without often realising – behaviour that can often be lethal.
For Oneman, the syrupy, slowed-down feeling of the drug translated into an increased fluidity in his DJing. “It kept me isolated in my studio and I just kept practicing. I started using Serato and opened my mind up to new ways of mixing – I was going everywhere with music, and the Xanax gave me so much confidence to do that shit. Especially when it's mixed with alcohol, you're just fearless”. If it sounds like he is championing the drug's effect on his music, it is important to note the distinction between what we want from our artists as people and as musicians: the drugs are always accepted as long as the music keeps coming. Does he think substance abuse is acceptable within the music industry? “Yeah definitely. I can't think of another job where drinking and taking drugs is totally acceptable whilst you're literally at work.”
The music industry has come under criticism in recent years for failing to look after the mental health of the artists who make up its backbone – with the pressures of gruelling tour schedules, social media commitments and back-to-back releases resulting in high levels of substance abuse that are then taken as a given. In that environment, the type of drug may vary but its root causes haven’t seemed to change for decades. Professor Malcolm Lader, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology at King’s College London, is clear about the drug’s dangers: “although you can use it in an intermittent way, there is a risk that you will become a regular user because it is a drug of dependency as well as abuse. Some people can just take it or leave it, in the sense that they can take it occasionally. Others fairly rapidly become dependent on it and get nasty withdrawal symptoms if they try stopping – particularly if they stop abruptly.”
“If you use regularly on a high dose,” Lader continues, “you will become confused, forgetful, you'll have another set of symptoms due to the toxicity and poisonous effect of the accumulation of the Xanax, and this is quite a marked effect, Xanax is particularly likely to cause this type of problem.”
So what next? How can we best confront this latent crisis without resorting to hysteria? Lader believes that education – both official and unofficial – is the most important thing. Principally, warning people about the dangers of counterfeit bars and of legitimate ones taken in excess. “There's a belief that these drugs can have an effect on you, but not a dangerous effect. People should know that there is a risk if they take them. I think that one of the safest things would be that – you can't ban it, because it isn't actually illegal. An awful lot of word goes around on social media about the pluses and minuses of these medications, and hopefully it will gradually get to be known that it is dangerous – there are no free lunches in the world, so to speak.”