So, you’re taking Xanax for the first time. This is what you need to know
If you’re going to take it, get educated
British students are using Xanax in growing numbers. It's 10 times stronger than Valium, relatively easy to get hold of, but has been linked to at least two recent student suicides.
Xanax is addictive, dangerous, and we don't encourage or endorse taking it. But, burying your head in the sand about drugs isn't going to help anyone. So here's what you need to know about Xanax.
If you've come across those little white bars, that's probably Xanax
You've probably seen those little white bars by now, the ones with the little lines pressed into them. Those are Xanax.
It's a tranquiliser, part of the benzodiazepine (benzo) family. Xanax is the brand name for the drug Alprazolam.
It's big in the US, but now British students are getting into it
Some use Xanax's anti-anxiety effects to self medicate, while others do it to get a buzz, or to help them get to sleep after a big night.
Whilst it's a prescription drug in the US, it's less widely available in the UK. Legitimately, it's only available on a private prescription. Yet its ready availability on the deep web, or casually through friends – most students we recently surveyed get it from someone they know – means Xanax culture and usage is spreading among British students.
Stories about Xanax range from wavy nights out to the pub, to the struggles of addicted students we've spoken too. These can have tragic outcomes. In December, University of Brighton student Georgia Jackson took her life two days after an "out of character rage" whilst on Xanax. Raven Hunt, a UWE student, took her own life last April after suffering from Xanax withdrawal.
Fake Xanax is out there, and easier to make than you might think
Although legitimate pills can be obtained through private prescription, buying Alprazolam in bulk off the dark web and pressing it into pills is a common method for making the Xanax you might come across in the UK. There are two pitfalls with this.
Anybody (with £88 and a will to press some Xannies) can get hold of a Xanax "candy" pill press.
And then, who knows what they're pressing? Not to get all "you don't know what you're putting in your body", but really, you don't know what you're putting in your body.
Finding out whether what you've got is really Xanax is hard – plenty of benzo testing kits specifically say they don't actually pick it up. As a result, you're often relying on trust that it's actually Alprazolam in your bar, and not something else. Even then, you've no way of knowing how strong they are, which makes controlling your dosage problematic.
Beyond its addictive nature, these supply issues are one of the things which make Xanax so hazardous, with Vice reporting on the UK's fake Xanax epidemic.
"Even if you’re taking 1mg or 0.5mg, it may not have the desired effect that you would have from a credible source," says Dr Mateen Durrani, a pyschiatrist from UK Addiction Addiction Treatment Centres, who specialises in substance misuse psychiatry.
It gets you waved
The effects of taking Xanax run from the mildly wavy to the completely incapacitating. One student we've spoken to, James, describes the effects of Xanax as: "It makes people feel like they are living in a dream-like state not understanding the reality around them. It makes you lose touch with yourself and the people around you."
For insomnia, or getting to sleep, Xanax isn't the best choice. Although it can be useful as a one-off, the quick tolerance build-up means increased doses are needed. There are more effective treatments for a sleep disorder, says Dr Durrani: "If you’ve got a chronic problem you should go and see a doctor, and look at alternatives like antidepressants, SSRIs and others that have a better and more lasting effect on insomnia."
Xanax come in different varieties, with their strength in mg usually pressed onto them, such as the '2' on the typical white bar. Again, unless this is prescribed, it's difficult to know if this is accurate.
"Usually people take 0.25mg or 0.5mg or 1mg and that gives the desired effect," says Dr Durrani, however the effect varies based on age, weight, dosage, and what else you've taken alongside it, as well as the quality of the Xanax.
Go slowly when taking it
Alongside the more obvious not knowing what you're taking, there are other reasons to be cautious with how much Xanax you take.
The first is that the effects take hold fast. Xanax is one of the more potent benzodiazepines, and kicks in quickly. "Because of that high potency, and because of that short half-life, it has an immediate effect, like you would have with alcohol or opiates," says Dr Durrani.
Second is that a bigger dose, taken frequently, can lead to an addiction that happens quicker and more severely. With an increased dose, says Dr Durrani, "the potential for harm is more, but the potential for dependence is also increased."
Avoid mixing it with alcohol or other drugs
Combining Xanax with alcohol is common and produces more of wave. However, mixing the two can be dangerous.
Whilst there is an increased effect, this combination "can also lead to serious physical complications including death from overdose," says Dr Durrani.
Taking any benzo on its own reduces the risk, and Dr Durrani says that "it’s very rare, even in overdose, to see somebody dying from it."
Yet mixing is dangerous, and "if taken in combination with alcohol or with opiates, the potential for it to cause respiratory arrest or cardiac arrest, or for that matter death, multiplies manyfold. When you see a death from alcohol or benzodiazepine overdose, when you look at it they’ve usually taken other drugs with it."
Signs of Xanax overdose include blurred vision, slurred speech, weakness, respiratory depression, and coma.
Addiction and withdrawal happen quicker than you expect
Xanax withdrawal doesn't just affect those with a fully-fledged addiction. "Inter-dose withdrawal" can happen when a dose wears off, bringing back heightened anxiety symptoms.
An addiction can build up quickly, says Dr Durrani: "You may develop a dependence when using a small dose for a few weeks, but with a higher dose you can develop the withdrawal symptoms much quicker."
These symptoms are notoriously unpleasant. One Reddit user, wunderbez, recounts his experiences: "Withdrawals were horrible. My teeth felt like they were turning in their sockets, sensitive to smell, touch, taste etc. Manic thoughts. Suicidal thoughts. Addictive behaviour. (obsessing over empty xanax bottles and counting valiums religiously.) Plus lots of other problems.”
This range of symptoms extends up to more extreme, and dangerous, seizures. "If you stop suddenly or the supply suddenly dries up, then you have serious risk of going into withdrawal seizures," says Dr Durrani, warning that these seizures can be fatal.
If you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction you can find out more about UKAT's services here.
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