One of the more alarming trends that has emerged during the coronavirus crisis is the concomitant rise in the use of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax. It has been reported that at-risk individuals began seeking prescription anxiolytics as early as mid-February with a consequent peak of 34% the following month, coinciding with the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic.1
Consistent with the available literature indicating that women are twice as likely to be affected by anxiety disorders, the prescription spikes were almost double when compared with those of their male counterparts.2 The pandemic has instilled a sense of fear in people, leading to social repercussions, such as estrangement, insomnia, and paranoia for at-risk populations.3,4
“Benzos” are commonly prescribed to help people sleep or to assist them in overcoming a host of anxiety disorders. The rapid onset of effects make Xanax a desirable and efficacious benzodiazepine.5 The use of these medications might not be an immediate cause for concern because patients might be taking it as intended. Nevertheless, clinicians are shying away from medical management in favor of counseling or therapy.
Numerous factors might contribute to this grim scenario, including patient dependence on benzodiazepines, paranoia about engaging with health care professionals because of fear tied to potential COVID-19 exposure, and/or increased access to illicit counterfeit pills from drug dealers or the dark web markets.
Lessons can be gleaned from the most extensive dark web drug busts in Britain’s history, in which a deluge of “pharmaceutical grade” Xanax pills made it to the hands of drug dealers and consumers between 2015 and 2017.6 A similar phenomenon emerged stateside.7 Virtually indistinguishable from recognized 2-mg Xanax pills, these fake pills posed a serious challenge to forensic scientists.8 The threat of overdose is very real for users targeted by the counterfeit Xanax trade, especially since those at risk often bypass professional health care guidelines.
In broad daylight, the drug dealers ran their operations revolving around two fake Xanax products: a primary knockoff and a limited edition – and vastly more potent “Red Devil” variant that was intentionally dyed for branding purposes. Because the “Red Devil” formulations contained 2.5 times the dose of the 2-mg pill, it had even more pronounced tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal effects (for example, panic attacks, anxiety, and/or hallucinations) – fatal consequences for users involved in consuming other drugs, such as alcohol or opioids. Preexisting drug users tend to gravitate toward benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax), perhaps in part, because of its relatively rapid onset of action. Xanax also is known for inducing proeuphoric states at higher doses, hence the appeal of the “Red Devil” pills.
Benzodiazepines, as a class of drugs, facilitate the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutryric acid’s (GABA) effect on the brain, producing anxiolytic, hypnotic, and/or anticonvulsant states within the user.9 Unbeknownst to numerous users is the fact that drugs such as alcohol and opioids, like Xanax, also serve as respiratory depressants, overriding the brain’s governance of the breathing mechanism. This, in turn, leads to unintended overdose deaths, even among seasoned drug seekers.
Overdose deaths have been steadily climbing over the years because it is common for some users to consume alcohol while being on Xanax therapy – without realizing that both substances are depressants and that taking them together can lead to side effects such as respiratory depression.
Forensic cases also have revealed that preexisting opioid consumers were drawn to Xanax; the drug’s potent mechanism of action would likely appeal to habituated users. A typical behavioral pattern has emerged among users and must be addressed. According to Australian: “So they take their Xanax, they take their painkiller, then they get drunk, that could be enough to kill them.”
Fatalities are more likely when benzodiazepines are combined with other drug classes or if the existing supply is contaminated or laced (for example, with fentanyl).8
As far as deaths by accidental benzodiazepine overdose are concerned, a similar epidemic has been recorded in the United States. In 2013, almost one-third of all prescription overdose deaths can be attributed to the use of benzodiazepines (for example, Xanax, Valium, and Ativan). However, media attention has been considerably muted, especially when compared with that of narcotic abuse. This is even more puzzling when taking into account that three-quarters of benzodiazepine mortalities co-occur within the context of narcotic consumption. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data confirm the ubiquitous nature of benzodiazepine (such as alprazolam) coprescriptions, accounting for roughly half of the 176,000 emergency department cases for 2011. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that there was a 67% increase in benzodiazepine prescriptions between 1996 and 2013, which warranted more stringent regulations for this particular class of drugs.
In 2016, the CDC issued new guidelines for opioid use acknowledging the danger of benzodiazepine coprescriptions. Food and Drug Administration “black box” warnings now grace the prescriptions of both of these drug classes.10 This trend remains on an upward trajectory, even more so during the pandemic, as there are 9.7 million prescriptions of anxiolytics/hypnotics such as Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin in the United States as of March 2020, which represents a 10% increase over the previous year., as well as the implementation of urine drug screening monitoring for drug adherence/compliance and diversion in those with suspected benzodiazepine addiction or a history of polysubstance abuse.11,12