The Great American Xanax Legacy
How the drug went from a medication for Middle America to being glorified by a range of hip-hop artists.
Illustration by Owain Anderson.
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.
As an American, I can confidently say that my country has produced many, many cool things that all the British people I know (four) think are great. We’ve given you writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Films like Citizen Kane and Bonnie & Clyde. Electric lightbulbs. The assembly line. Airplanes. Microchips. Ella Fitzgerald. Wu-Tang Clan. A gun culture that makes the whole knife attack thing seem inconceivably small by comparison. That one video of the cat playing the piano. I could go on, but my point is America's really big, and we have greatly contributed to your cultural enrichment. We’ve also given you Xanax. Which, uh, sorry about that.
America is a country where people like instant results. Ours is a history largely defined by an unspoken mandate to achieve, and to achieve now, at all costs, consequences be damned – even when it makes us feel like shit. The cumulative effect of all that nonspecific go-getting, in addition to all the fun stuff like Elvis and Twitter and the moon landing, has been to impose a creeping, implacable dread upon the American psyche. And it's a dread that, of course, we collectively demand get the hell out of the way so that we can get back to go-getting whatever's out there to be go-gotten. Hence, Xanax.
Xanax, a tranquilliser, is a member of the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which were first synthesised in the late 1950s by a man named Dr Leo Sternbach, a Polish chemist who’d fled to New Jersey after the onset of World War II. More on him later – first, we have to talk about speed. As the post-World War II boom took hold, pharmaceutical companies had perfected the process of inventing new drugs, especially those meant to enhance your mood. Amphetamines, which gained popularity after being distributed to American soldiers in World War II (the Nazis, notably, were on meth, but that’s a whole different story), became a popular treatment for depression in the late 1940s and 50s, with psychiatrists doling out pep pills to anyone who seemed like they could use a little help contributing to the burgeoning American economy.
"Mother needs something today to calm her down / And though she's not really ill / There's a little yellow pill"
Of course, if you’ve spent all day zipping around on proto-adderall, you’d probably like a little something – say, a tranquilliser – to take the edge off. During the first half of the 20th century, this relief came in the form of barbiturates, which, due to the fact they were both addictive and very good at killing people, were eventually phased out of the market. But not before – writes Nicolas Rasmussen in the book On Speed: From Benzedrine to Adderall – pharmaceutical companies began mixing them into an amphetamine/tranquilliser speedball that created a loopy chemical cocktail that must have been wildly difficult to drive on.
On their own, tranquillisers came to be seen as a solution to the overcrowding of America’s mental institutions, where instead of locking up schizophrenics and psychotics they were simply sedated and sent on their way. It was also around this time, writes Rasmussen, that pharmaceutical companies began to market psychotropic drugs to not only psychiatrists but general practitioners, who took to prescribing tranquillisers to treat anxiety – which, by the early 1960s, had become as commonly diagnosed a mental health issue as ADHD is today.
This newfound demand for non-barbiturate tranquillisers dovetailed with Dr Leo Sternbach's 1957 discovery that benzodiazepines – a class of chemical he’d first synthesised decades earlier while trying to invent a new dye – could be used to treat anxiety with greater efficiency and less risk than barbiturates, the common tranquilliser of the time. In 1963, a drug based off Sternbach's development was released under the name Valium by the pharmaceutical company Upjohn. Marketed as a safer alternative to the demonic barbiturates, it was an instant hit.
As these things tend to do, Valium weaselled its way into the cultural consciousness, quickly becoming the most-prescribed drug in the world. In 1966, The Rolling Stones released "Mother’s Little Helper", a jaunty little Valium-themed single from their album Aftermath, which included the lyrics, “Mother needs something today to calm her down / And though she’s not really ill / There’s a little yellow pill,” and cynically concludes, “If you take more of those, you will get an overdose.” As you can probably guess, it wasn’t that the Stones were anti-Valium crusaders – if anything, it was that Valium wasn’t hardcore enough. In his memoir, Life, Keith Richards mentions eating barbiturates for breakfast in the 70s.
In 1970, Jimi Hendrix took nine barbiturate sleeping pills and never woke up. By that time, there was something of a celebrity barbiturate epidemic – the drugs had claimed Margaret Sullivan in 1960, Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and Judy Garland in 1969. Meanwhile, Valium had gone from being seen as barbiturates' newer, safer cousin to a menace in its own right. During the 1970s, it slowly dawned upon America that if you needed drugs to function, that was a problem – even if a doctor had prescribed them to you. This awakening is perhaps best characterised by Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald Ford, who in 1978 publicly admitted that she was an addict. The First Lady later wrote, "The medicines I took [...] had been prescribed by doctors, so how could I be a drug addict?" The decade closed out with a rash of Congressional hearings meant to highlight the dangers of prescription drug addiction in the hopes of making America’s middle class so anxious that they’d stop taking the Valium they took for their anxiety.
In her book The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers, Andrea Tone writes that rather than treating the Valium backlash as a defeat, its manufacturer Upjohn seized the cultural climate as a golden opportunity. Their patent on the drug was set to expire in 1985, meaning their corner on the Valium market was drying up anyway, and if everyone had come to view the drug as a boogeyman it was probably best to just move on. In 1981, they introduced Xanax upon the world. Marketed as a safer alternative to the demonic Valium, it was an instant hit.
But much like Valium, Xanax was believed to be safe until it wasn't. Due to the drug’s short half-life, it caused greater withdrawal symptoms than Valium did, meaning it was even more habit-forming than its predecessor. Tone’s book quotes an addiction specialist as having said, "[For someone] predisposed to addiction… [Xanax] is the crack-cocaine of benzodiazepines."
One of the most pernicious elements of benzo abuse is that it tends to amplify the effects of other substances, a fact that was underscored by the number of benzo-related celebrity deaths in the 2000s – Amy Winehouse, Brittany Murphy, Whitney Houston and Heath Ledger all had the class of drug in their systems at the time of their deaths.
It’s never been uncommon for pharmaceutical companies to market drugs to both consumers and directly to doctors, and as the drug industry has grown, its marketing efforts have continued apace – indeed, research suggests that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical mega-corporation that in 2003 took control of Upjohn (and Xanax), spends more on marketing its drugs than creating new ones. But around the time that Pfizer gobbled up Upjohn, the drug found its way into rap lyrics, one of the greatest sources of free advertising in the known universe.
Patient Zero for Xanax mentions in hip-hop was most likely Lil Wyte, a white Three 6 Mafia affiliate from Memphis, Tennessee whose 2003 debut album Doubt Me Now contained the regional hit "Oxy [sic] Cotton". Despite the misdirection of its title, the track essentially functions as a laundry list of ways to destroy your brain with prescription medications. The song begins with Wyte rapping, "Go on and slip me two Xanax bars, I’m ready to get full / Fifth of Crown to wash it down, I’m downtown snappin’ rolls," building up to a chorus of, “Oxycontin-Xanax-bars-Percocet-and-Lortab / Valiums-Morphine-patches-ecstasy / It’s all up for grabs / Whatcha want, whatcha need, hit me up I gotcha, mane."
The chorus is to extremely dangerous pharmaceuticals what the chorus of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" is to ways to leave your lover – just a big fucking list of them, words which seem so intrinsically linked that they stick inside your brain long after their meaning dissipates. The track has become something of a calling card for Wyte – he remade the song for his 2009 album The Bad Influence, and to this day he sells T-shirts, hoodies and hats that bear the slogan "I NEED A XANAX BAR".
Around 2009, mentions of Xanax in hip-hop zoomed skywards.
Eminem referenced the drug in multiple songs off his drug-nightmare album Relapse (2009), an ode to the years he'd lost earlier in the decade becoming hip-hop's version of a pill-popping late-career Elvis. Lil Wayne, who rapped about being "a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars" in 2007’s "I Feel Like Dying", claimed he was “so wild I think I may just need a Xanax” on Gucci Mane’s “Stupid Wild.” On his album Attention Defecit, Wale remade A Tribe Called Quest’s "Award Tour" and spoke of being "gone off the Xanax and risking your life with the mic in your hand".
By the 2010s, Xanax was a full-on hip-hop trope. Danny Brown's 2012 OD EP featured a Xanax bar on its cover, while Nas turned to it on his album Life Is Good to help deal with his divorce. In 2015, Future spoke of taking 56 Xanax bars in a month on his mixtape 56 Nights, and on the other end of the spectrum, Earl Sweatshirt’s record I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is preoccupied with the darkness that Xanax abuse can bring. "Step into the shadows, we could talk about addiction," Earl raps on "Grief", before copping to "Feeling like I'm stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop."
And though, on some level, the dangers of Xanax seemed apparent – what with the addiction and death and whatnot – there was a time earlier in the decade where the drug was truly celebrated. A 2012 feature in New York Magazine waxed rhapsodic about Xanax, glossing over its numerous risks and instead leaning on the argument that it was a cheap, easy solution for the pressures of late capitalism. Last year, a Bloomberg piece noted that Xanax was one of the most frequently-mentioned brands in hip-hop from 2014 to 2017 – alongside eight car companies, Rolex, Air Jordans, and Hennessy. By that metric, for a three-year period, Xanax was the Rolex of drugs, and not just because they both end with an X. That’s fucking bananas.
However, as both America and Great Britain confront their respective prescription drug abuse epidemics, it seems we collectively might be nearing a point where we turn away from Xanax, just as we once turned away from Valium, and barbiturates before that. In 2016, the mother of the deceased hip-hop icon-in-the-making A$AP Yams wrote a piece highlighting the fact that her son had mixed codeine and alprazolam (the active ingredient in Xanax) the night he died, offering a warning of the dangers of prescription medication.
That same year, Chance the Rapper spoke out against the drug, admitting in an interview with Billboard that he'd kicked a "bad Xanax habit". And as hip-hop’s Soundcloud-rooted underground reeled from the November, 2017 death of Lil Peep – who glorified Xanax abuse in his lyrics, only to tragically die after ingesting it – his fellow travellers Lil Pump, Smokepurrp and Lil Xan (who, it should go without saying, literally named himself after Xanax) have all sworn off the drug.
But as has happened in the past, if the world sours on Xanax, the pharmaceutical industry will surely promote a replacement that they claim to be safer and less addictive. And because America is a land of contradictions, where we make ourselves anxious about attaining success, only to feel even more anxious once we discover that success on its own will never make us happy, we'll fall for this new drug just as hard as we fell for the drugs that came before it.