How do you report on a drug that the vast majority of people don't know exists?
Counterfeit Xanax in the UK had, until recently, gone relatively ignored by the press and government, despite its increasingly widespread use over the past couple of years. Anecdotally, people started taking it in their masses in 2016, with the summer of 2017 already spoken of in semi-mythical tones by drug dealers and recreational users; the Snapchat generation's "mephedrone summer of 2009".
As I wrote on VICE in January of this year, "Xanax has become such a common part of sixth-form education that ... the drug's use is seemingly viewed as on par with smoking behind the bike sheds or necking Lambrini on lunch break." The scale really does feel significant – but has never been quantifiable. For a variety of reasons – from the notorious lack of funding for drugs research, to the time it has taken for people nowhere near a classroom or a Supreme queue to realise this is now an issue – the stats aren't there to add due weight to the discussion.
Firstly, Xanax – the name given to the benzodiazepine alprazolam by manufacturer Pfizer – is only available on private prescription in the UK, so overwhelmingly, the "Xanax" that people in the UK are taking is not legitimate. Made by DIY producers who've got their hands on powdered alprazolam, it's bought off the dark web or via social media, sold by young dealers, friends or acquaintances. We also know that its use is prevalent; in the context of rising teen drug use, WEDINOS – the UK's publicly funded drug-monitoring service – ranked alprazolam as third in the 2016-17 top ten most commonly detected New Psychoactive Substances in the UK. But that's about it.
So, ahead of the release of our new documentary, Xanxiety: The UK's Fake Xanax Epidemic, and the accompanying week of editorial, we used our VICE UK Snapchat channel to ask you about your experience of the drug.
Somewhat surprisingly, we found that use was higher than expected. To the question posed on Snapchat, "Do any of your friends take Xanax?" we heard from 85,000 respondents in the UK. Of those, 35 percent answered "yes", 43 percent "no", 16 percent "not sure" and 6 percent checked the box asking "What’s Xanax?" This indicates not only a high usage, but a developed awareness of the drug (can you imagine almost all British teens knowing what Xanax is ten years ago?).
In terms of demographics, our Snapchat audience is primarily 13 to 24-year-olds, while the gender split is 50/50 male and female. A Snapchat questionnaire might not be the most rigorous method of data collection, but looking at those results – and bearing in mind the large sample size – it's fair to suggest that over a third of (predominantly) young people say they have friends who take Xanax.
This is a further indication that benzo use among young people can't be ignored.
Ahead of the Xanax documentary's release, we also set up an anonymous UK-only phone-line and invited people to leave messages talking about their Xanax use.
Listening through all the recordings, one of the recurring themes was losing best friends to Xanax. These accounts highlighted the dull and isolating results of serious addiction. "I haven't seen him in months. It's almost as if I’ve lost a friend to the drug," one caller said. "If you're prescribed it then fair enough, but if you’re not then what are you really doing? To this day I message my friend and he doesn't reply. He's just in his own world. It's a tough way to lose someone and there's nothing you can do about it. In my opinion, it's up there with heroin in terms of addiction."
It might ultimately end in one user falling into an isolated nightmare, but for the most part friendship groups were trying the drug together. The destruction that Xanax caused repeatedly outweighed any sort of fun had.
One caller ordered 30 bars off the dark web for him and his two friends and "ate" all of them over the course of a day. "With Xanax, you eat more than you should. I lost my memory for a week. My mate – let’s call him Dash – ended up in hospital with his heartbeat slowed down and just generally fucked. My mate – we'll call him L – got twatted out his face. We ended up wrecking his flat. He got his flat took off him."
On one night out, a different group of friends were being followed by security and started to run away. "We found an escape route. It was this big 10ft concrete drop. I was conscious enough to drop [down] it nicely. My mate was OK. But then this guy, he fell straight off onto his face. An Olympic dive onto his face and he was bleeding everywhere. Fucked up really bad. And he just got up like it was nothing and kept walking. I was like, 'Bruv, you just fell off a 10ft drop.' He ended up going A&E that night. He was completely unaware. That’s what [Xanax] does to you – it just makes you so unaware of what the fuck is going on."
This inconvenient merging of highly regrettable actions and memory loss is another dominant narrative. From breaking up with girlfriends ("didn’t remember the next week") to spending money ("my mate got so fucked that he put a deposit down for a house for second year at uni and then completely forgot"), only discovering what you've done on Xanax because people have told you is, to respondents, a terrifying prospect.
One caller who claimed to be a drug dealer said, "I would highly recommend anyone never, ever, ever touch Xanax. Most dangerous drug I have ever encountered."
Notably, first-time users were taking relatively small amounts and reporting similar memory loss. One person took two bars one Saturday and woke up on Monday morning naked in their bed. "Everything was a blur. It took until Wednesday to wear off," they said. "I'm lucky that I had friends who didn't take advantage of me, because I honestly had no idea. I had messages on my phone, I have no idea what I said. It was just a five-day blank period in my life."
For heavier users, it is possible to be edged into a state in which you're a different person entirely, to the point of absurd transformation. One of the more curious callers said, "I nearly stabbed a man on Xanax. Now, being completely honest with you, that is not like me. Xanax gives you the confidence to do absolutely anything." Across many calls there was an interesting repetition of "zombie" and "zombified" – which sounds like tabloid-style scaremongering terminology, but were the words that addicts, former addicts, casual and one-time users were choosing to describe how Xanax made them feel.
As with all drugs, people are harmed and lives are affected when there is a lack of information and education available. This was a point repeated by many of the people who contacted us, knowing that their views would be shared, broadcast or included in editorial.
"I think you guys really need to show what kids need to know," one young man told VICE via our phone-line. "'Cause everyone thinks it's really cool, and taking Xans is fucking [up] rap culture and it's for clout and whatnot. Xans did a lot to me and made me someone that I really wasn't. You need to really show what the trip is and what you lose from it. Show both sides and have a public opinion. Because when it weighs in, people see it's not worth it."