How Xanax Became the British Teenager's Drug of Choice
With counterfeit Xans readily available on the dark web, a generation of teenagers have found out the hard way that the pills aren't as easygoing as they first thought.
Illustrations by Owain Anderson
Dan lives with his parents in a beautiful four-bed detached house in Surrey, the type with polished granite kitchen surfaces, ankle-deep cream carpets and a "family room". He's 17, into streetwear, especially Nike and Supreme, and spends his weekends going to raves, messing about with graphic design software or catching up on coursework in his bedroom.
Dan doesn’t fit the profile of a former drug addict, but that's exactly what he is. Until recently, like an increasing number of teenagers in Britain, he was regularly using a huge amount of the benzodiazepine Xanax – enough to make him physically dependent on the drug.
"For me, it’s easier to get Xanax than it is to get alcohol," he says over the phone from his family home. "If I order alcohol off Amazon or whatever, I'll have to sign on delivery. Xans, you can get next-day delivery and have it in your postbox waiting for you." Xanax is cheap, too: anywhere between 30p to £3 a bar, depending on where Dan was buying it, from dark web marketplaces or the dealers at his sixth-form college.
Xanax is the trade name for alprazolam, a benzodiazepine sold by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. When prescribed for anxiety, doctors recommend 1.5mg a day, and to never surpass 4mg daily. At the height of his addiction, Dan was taking the equivalent of 5mg a day, and sometimes more if he was stressed about something ("meeting up with a girl, an exam, a night out"). Like the vast majority of UK users, though, the pills he was popping were likely counterfeit Xanax – alprazolam that had been pressed into tablets by DIY dealers and marketed on the dark web as the legitimate branded stuff, meaning his true daily dosage could have been even higher.
Like many teens now addicted to Xanax – or similar drugs from the benzodiazepine family – Dan was introduced to the pills recreationally at raves and parties, often mixing them with alcohol or other drugs. However, he quickly realised they were what he calls a "cure" for his anxiety – something he had suffered from throughout his teens, like his brother before him – and was the first of his group to become dependent. "I tried to keep it quiet, but if I was like, 'I want to bring Xans [to school],' it wasn’t an embarrassing thing to do," he says. "It's [seen as] kinda cool. It worked for me. I was pretending I was using them recreationally, when really I was reliant on them just to cope."
In certain circles, Xanax has become such a common part of sixth-form education that, for the multiple teenagers I spoke to for this article, the drug's use is seemingly viewed as on par with smoking behind the bike sheds or necking a Lambrini on lunch break: they talked about "popping Xans in the toilet", "bowling around mellowed out" and "operating from within a bubble". But unlike weed or alcohol, there is no paraphernalia, smell or red-eyes to alert others to their use. The majority of adults have little idea these drugs are being abused, because they’re basically invisible until they become a problem.
Alongside opioids like Percocet and OxyContin, Xanax bars have been stars of the US rap scene's recent obsession with prescription pills. Since the death of Lil Peep in November, 2017 from the "combined toxic effects of fentanyl and alprazolam" there's been something of a backlash against Xanax in the rap community – Lil Pump says he's off it, Vic Mensa's called out Future for normalising its use, even Lil Xan says he's quitting – but that's yet to trickle down to all those British kids in bucket hats and creole earrings for whom Xanax is the drug of choice.
This is an issue. There's a reason that, in the US rap scene, post-boom, Xanax seems to be starting to bust: it's much more dangerous than many people assume it to be.
Prescription drugs seem safe because they’re legitimised by a medical seal of approval. In the UK, Xanax and other benzodiazepines – or "benzos" – are only a class C drug when misused, while weed is class B and heroin class A, further creating an illusion of safety.
Dan says that, after stealing money from his parents to fund his addiction, they demanded to see what he'd spent it on, so he took them to his room and showed them his huge stash of pills. "An interesting point is that my parents found my weed about two years ago and went ballistic, [but] when I showed them hundreds of Xans they didn’t get mad, because they saw it as prescription," he says. "Like, 'Oh, it’s not a drug, it’s medicine.' Not bothered or fazed by it at all."
Of course, while Xanax is a medicine, like many other medical grade drugs it's easy to misuse, with negative side effects including insomnia, nausea and blacking out. Combining Xans with other drugs presents all sorts of problems, and they’re especially lethal when paired with opioids or alcohol; in around a third of all fatal overdoses in the US, a benzodiazepine is found. Once you become physically dependent on the pills – which doesn't take long; a week or so of regular use will do it – you have to carefully wean yourself off. Getting the substance out of your system too quickly can lead to psychosis, brain damage, seizures and other side effects that can end in hospitalisation or death.
While these dangers haven't necessarily been taken onboard by teens or their parents in the UK, it seems the authorities are starting to pay attention. Parliament had its first debate about Xanax misuse this January; eight young people were hospitalised in Sussex over the Christmas period after taking the drug; and in May of last year police sent out an appeal after 20 teens needed medical treatment in one week as a result of taking Xanax.
Last week, Police Scotland issued a warning after at least 27 Xanax-related deaths were recorded in the country in 2017. Similar statistics from around the UK aren't available, but join certain drug harm reduction discussion groups on Facebook, and reports of young people dying after mixing Xanax with alcohol and other substances appear with alarming regularity.
"When you listen to music on Xans, or you make music on Xans, or you listen to music which is about Xans, it's really romantic. But the reality of Xanax is not. Xans invite you in with, like, a kiss, and then sucker punch you in the face."
What sets this drug trend apart is that, judging from what the teenagers I've spoken to for this piece have told me, much like with North America's prescription opioid crisis, Xanax use is pervasive among kids from every kind of economic background. The only common link is that users may suffer more from anxiety in their day-to-day lives.
Benzodiazepines like Xanax work by suppressing the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear, which is why they are prescribed frequently in the US – where over 5 percent of the adult population take them – for anxiety disorders and pain relief. "With Xans, you’re back to being a normal person. You're not having panic attacks, you’re not being anxious and you can get through college," explains Dan.
For someone with moderate to severe anxiety, the effects of a benzo are like dropping slow motion into a soft blanket taut enough to catch you gently in motion. The anxious thoughts, if you still have them, hardly make a dent. You just don’t care.
In the UK, the NHS is unlikely to prescribe benzos for anxiety because they’re so addictive. If doctors here give you any kind of benzodiazepine it'll likely be diazepam (American trade name, Valium) for short-term use, and not Xanax, which is ten times as strong and hits your system quicker. Of course, with access to the dark web and its pharmaceutical souq, there's little to stop British teens from self-medicating – and none of the scripts or check-ups that keep America's prescription Xanax users vaguely in line. Compounding the problem is the fact that NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are stretched useless: a report at the end of last year revealed how children are waiting up to 18 months for treatment.
Issy was 15 when she got into Xanax, after being offered it by a dealer she already knew at a party. "The week after I first took it, I was reading up on what they were, and realised they were anti-anxiety," she says over the phone. "So I bought more off that same guy and I remember him telling me, 'If you ever feel upset, literally just take a bit of a Xan and you’ll be fine.' I'd been struggling with depression and anxiety for a year, and this guy knew that. What he said was obviously the worst thing to say. I didn't know what I was getting myself into."
Once dependent, users have to be gradually and carefully tapered off Xanax, ideally with NHS assistance – something many young users still living with their parents don't want to seek out, for fear of getting into trouble. One 19-year-old from Poole I spoke to was intending to cut down, but didn’t come off the drug slowly enough or with help, and fell down a whole flight of stairs during a seizure. He woke up with blood all over his face and was taken off on a stretcher by emergency services.
Kristallo, a 19-year-old rapper from Birmingham, posts pictures of himself on Instagram holding bags of weed. Sometimes he’s on public transport drinking cans of Perla, or staring into bathroom mirrors with his mates, who are dressed like him, in Fila jackets and shotta bags.
On the 16th of November, 2017, Kristallo was grieving for the rapper Lil Peep, who had died the previous day from an overdose of Xanax and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. He posted a tribute to the American, whose real name was Gustav Åhr, on Instagram: a black-and-white portrait with the caption "Burned Too Bright" and a candle emoji.
Kristallo was one of many British teens uploading commemorative posts: before his death, Lil Peep had managed to capture in his music the anxiety and nihilistic worldview common among many young people these days – a burden that Peep, like other rappers, numbed with painkillers and tranquillisers, like Xanax, often posting photos and videos of himself doing so online.
Until recently, this scene felt fairly isolated to American and international artists, such as Lil Uzi Vert, Smokepurpp and the Swedish rapper Yung Lean. But over the past year or so, more British MCs have been emulating their mumbled bars and the wavy, often cold mood that defines their music, as well as the prescription drug use that underpins it. Kristallo is one of them. In a recent song are the lines:
"I’m young, I still take exams / Forgetting all my notes, I’m takin’ Xans"
A huge Yung Lean fan, he got a "bit of a reputation" on social media, started to get recognised out and about, and thought he'd try his hand at rap. "We were just getting really waved and making music," he says over the phone. "None of the music we made was made sober. When you listen to music on Xans, or you make music on Xans, or you listen to music which is about Xans, it's really romantic. But [the reality of Xanax] is not. Xans invite you in with, like, a kiss, and then sucker punch you in the face."
Kristallo started doing Xanax in the summer of 2016 at parties before he became dependent. "When I did them a lot I was listening to artists like Yung Lean. He’s my inspiration, he’s everything that I want to be as an artist," he says. "I remember being on a Xan and then, like, listening to him talk about Xans, and I was thinking, 'It feels amazing, the music's amazing.' Until the music stops playing."
You can get Xanax in various forms, but it's the bars most teens want: little strips split into four blocks, like the legitimate medication sold by Pfizer in the States. Of course, almost none of the bars available on the dark net will be the real deal, but these are the pills made famous by American rappers, so they're the pills home manufacturers make up for market.
One dealer posted a video to YouTube showing how he, like many others, buys powdered alprazolam and presses it into Xanax bars himself, which "look exactly like the real Pfizer 2mg bars, but actually contain 3.5mg so pack more of a punch than the original ones". It's these that recreational users want to buy and flaunt on Instagram.
Issy has a private Instagram – a "spam" account – and in the recent past she has shared images of her Xanax use on there. "If I had Xans, I’d post a picture of them [or herself, evidently wasted] and say [wasted] 'Off three Xans', or some random shit like that," she says, adding that sharing the photos was a "bit of a joke at first".
Many others do the same. "If people are out and on Xans on a Saturday night, you know that went straight on people's Snapchats," says Issy, the implication being that it's not enough to simply do the pills – like rappers on their social media, you have to be seen to be doing them.
Dealers also now utilise Snapchat and occasionally Instagram Stories to advertise what they've got on offer. Issy and 18-year-old Anna* both confirmed that dealers from either their sixth form colleges or promoters for raves will take pictures and videos of their stock and post photos with information on price and availability.
All this performative pill popping is now so prevalent among certain types of teenager that it's started to become an internet culture cliché. Instagram meme accounts like @poundlandbandit and @dankmemes4homecountiesteens post "starter packs" that include Reebok Classics, messy bedrooms and Xanax bars; bloggers with huge reaches, like Tana Mongeau, tell haters to "pop a xan"; and that deliberately-tacky "sad" Instagram aesthetic now includes people posting photos of huge Xanax-shaped pillows or T-shirts bearing slogans like "Xanax and chill".
Among the teens who post this kind of stuff, there seems to be an almost competitive element – a contest to see who can take the most Xanax in one go. "It's like they turn into sweets and you want to munch them as much as possible," says Kristallo. "It’s all about who can do the most, or who can get the most messed up. It’s easy to just think of them as a really fun, easy thing to do, when in reality it's a guy who's losing his mind because he’s on, like, eight Xans at once because he's trying to prove a point."
"This specific corner of sesh culture is equal parts nihilism, banter and bravado: it’s showing how hard you are via how fucked up you can get, how many substances you can get away with taking and in which settings."
If you're hugely fucked up on Xanax, the internet slang to describe your state is "bartarded". As James Nolan wrote on VICE last year, users post videos and stories of themselves being "bartards" online, "half as cautionary tales and half as boasts". Often, these stories involve someone taking Xans and waking up hours or days later with no memory of the trail of destruction they’ve left behind. Blackouts are common – and, in fact, sometimes a goal.
Kristallo once collapsed in public – something he has no recollection of – and was told afterwards that he was repeating the phrase "I need a Xan" over and over. "I've lost bank cards on Xans, I’ve, you know, gone through weekends where I haven’t remembered a single thing because I've blacked out on them," he says. Anna*, who takes Xanax for anxiety, but whose friends use it recreationally, told me: "My friend plans with his other mates to try to blackout before the end of the night. I do think, 'You could have just stayed home,' because they don’t remember any of it."
This specific corner of sesh culture is equal parts nihilism, banter and bravado: it’s showing how hard you are via how fucked up you can get, how many substances you can get away with taking and in which settings. It’s showing how much you don’t care. As another teen, 17-year-old Carlos*, told me, "If you can go to one party and do a pill, three Xans, a bottle of lean or spirits and a gram of ket – or something like that – that shows that you’re not someone to fuck with."
Social media is where this Xanax culture is thriving, and unfortunately it'll continue to tick over here until it's replaced by whatever drug comes next. But it's not all bad online: with a lack of easily accessible information on Xanax addiction elsewhere, harm reduction-themed Facebook groups with thousands of members have been offering users advice in real-time, and – most importantly – reminding them to seek professional medical help when coming off Xanax.
Worryingly, Facebook has recently been shutting down groups set up by the popular harm reduction page Sesh Safety with no warning or explanation, saying only that posts have breached community guidelines. When we went to the company for comment, they wouldn't add anything on the record, directing us only to their Community Standards – which was confusing, as the post that had been flagged as problematic (sent to us by a group administrator) didn't appear to break any of the rules.
Perhaps the worry here – as is often the case with open conversations around drugs – is that in allowing groups to offer honest and realistic harm reduction advice, Facebook could be seen to be condoning problematic drug use. It's an issue that prevents a lot of media organisations from engaging in much-needed pragmatic drug discussion and instead maintaining the status quo.
Whatever the reason, and whatever conversations people have, for now, Xanax use isn't going anywhere – and you only have to talk to the drug's users to find out why.
"This sounds very philosophical, but Xans are big because of how fluid in society you've gotta be," says Dan. "One minute, you've gotta be calm, relaxed, social, confident, and the next you're raving at a party. At college, your brain’s gotta be buzzing. It’s a difficult balance for a lot of people, especially people with mental health issues. We feel like we can’t meet that expectation."
Predictably, social media is central to this. "It's easy to portray the image of yourself as being all sex and drugs on Snapchat, but you’ve gotta go out and replicate that off social media," Dan continues. "It's a lot easier to speak online to someone. Offline, that's when you’re like, 'I'm not meeting these expectations.' Your self-esteem goes down and you become more anxious."
Exposed to Xanax via music or in social settings, a generation of teenagers – widely referenced as the most anxious on record – are discovering that the drug can help to pacify their anxiety. With access to the dark web, they're free to self-medicate with no oversight, until they realise they're physically dependent and can't stop popping pills. This, clearly, is no good. The NHS is in crisis and the UK government refuses to engage with the drugs question in any meaningful way, but ignoring this particular drug trend is only going to lead to more pressure on services in future.
Like anyone who has pushed through Xanax withdrawal, Kristallo talks about his experience with a sense of horror. "The anxiety that I felt when I was coming off Xans, when I was trying to get clean... I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – cold sweats, shaking and paranoia," he says. "Xans are a short-term kind of solution, and they can’t last forever. Once they finish, you end up worse mentally than before you initially started."
*Names have been changed
If you want help coming off Xanax or other similar drugs, make an appointment with your GP or call the free NHS helpline on 111.
Stay tuned for the next episode of High Society, about Xanax culture in the UK.