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Xanax: The anti-anxiety pills turning teenagers into zombies on both sides of the Atlantic

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anti-anxiety medication turning teenagers into zombies

While aging hedonists old enough to have had first-hand experience of 1990s rave culture will likely appreciate the drivers behind a recent resurgence in the popularity of MDMA, other emerging drug trends are more likely to leave members of the so-called “trainspotting generation” scratching their heads in bemusement. People who lived through ecstasy’s golden age who also have some familiarity with the misery heroin addiction can bring would probably have little difficulty understanding the growing popularity of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, but might find the rate at which young people are now abusing anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax something of an anomaly. Unfortunately, Generation Xers who are now parents themselves, especially those living in the US and the UK, are increasingly finding that their children are turning to illicit pharmaceuticals widely available on the dark web.

Xanax, which is legitimately prescribed to treat anxiety and panic attacks in America, has long been abused in the US, but is now becoming increasingly popular among British teenagers. The tranquiliser is a benzodiazepine, a class of psychoactive drug that also includes diazepam and lorazepam. Benzodiazepines are potentially addictive, and can kill if mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol. In the US, Xanax has been abused as a party drug for many years, and is commonly referenced in popular culture, particularly by American rap artists. In November last year, US rapper Lil Peep died after overdosing on Xanax, fentanyl and a number of other drugs,  prompting a selection of other hip-hop artists to announce their commitment to stop abusing prescription medication. In terms of influencing their impressionable young audiences, this is likely to have little effect, with the abuse of painkillers and other prescription drugs now firmly part of mainstream American culture.

As was the case with fentanyl, the abuse of illicit Xanax appears to have now crossed the Atlantic to the UK, where teenagers are able to buy the drug and others like it with extraordinary ease on the dark web and social media platforms. The problem has become so acute in Britain that Xanax is now being referred to as UK teenagers’ drug of choice. According to researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, more than a fifth Xanax trades that take place on the dark web originate from the UK, making Britain second only to the US globally in terms of the number of times the drug is bought from illicit hidden marketplaces. Yesterday, the BBC reported that it had discovered that Xanax is being offered to teenagers on surface web social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, prompting Nick Hickmott from UK addiction charity Addaction to say: “It’s definitely part of our youth culture now. How many young people are using it is debatable, and obviously what’s really important is we get some really good statistics around this and some really good records so we know exactly what we’re dealing with, but it’s enough to be showing some concern.”

In January, Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency (PHA) and Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) warned of the dangers of misusing drugs such as Xanax, and called for a government review into the growing number of people who are becoming unwell after taking them. The two agencies said the fact that the drugs are rarely prescribed in Northern Ireland suggests people are obtaining them from street dealers or the internet, noting that the quality and strength of substances bought from these sources can vary wildly. While it is clear that some young people in the UK abuse Xanax as a party drug, evidence suggests that many are using the sedative to self-medicate. Speaking with the Guardian earlier this month, a teacher said she had encountered students who buy Xanax illicitly to treat metal health disorders such as anxiety, a situation she said only compounds their condition. Bizarre as it may seem to older people whose experimentation with drugs has long since passed, young people’s obsession with dangerous prescription medication that effectivity turns them into zombies appears to be growing in Britain, much in the same way as it did in America.

At the end of January, Police Scotland issued a warning after it emerged that more than 20 Xanax-related deaths had taken place across the country. Days later, the London Evening Standard reported that six schoolgirls had to be rushed to hospital after becoming ill and unable to walk after apparently taking the drug. The reason as to why young people have turned away from more traditional recreational drugs towards prescription medication remains hard to determine, with some experts suggesting Millennials are more anxious than previous generations partly thanks to their relatively closeted upbringings, and others claiming the phenomenon is simply fashionable at the moment thanks to celebrity culture, and will pass as soon as a new drug trend emerges. But while it is clear that illicit Xanax is doing very little to help those young people who take it deal with anxiety issues, and has the potential to cause great harm to those who abuse it for recreational purposes, the fact that the drug is so easy to buy on the dark web and social media platforms means the problem is likely to get worse before it gets any better.

Photo credit: www.quotecatalog.com

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How paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers freely use the surface web to exploit victims

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paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers

Drug dealers who once felt safe to operate on the dark web have found to their cost over recent years that hidden online marketplaces may not offer the anonymity and protection they once thought they might. The closure of the likes of Hansa and AlphaBay and the arrest of illicit marketplace admins and moderators such as bearded hipster Gal Vallerius and AlphaBay boss Alexandre Cazes have prompted many dealers to abandon the dark web in favour of surface web platforms and applications that ironically seem to offer more protection from the prying eyes of police and other law enforcement authorities.

Paedophiles and child porn distributors have also had their fingers burned on the dark web following the infiltration by police of the world’s largest child porn hidden website, prompting them and other sex offenders to focus on ways of using surface web tools to facilitate their crimes. As has proven to be the case with drugs, weapons and human trafficking, big technology firms have done little to rid their networks of criminals who carry out a range social media-enabled sex offences, whether they involve children or adults. A failure to crack down on this type of activity is resulting in misery for victims across the globe, some of whom end up taking their own lives as a result of being targeted by online predators.

Live child sex abuse streaming

The spread of cheap, fast and reliable internet access in countries in Southeast Asia and South America has resulted in the rise of livestreamed child sex abuse shows, during which paedophiles from across the globe can send instructions to vulnerable young victims who are forced to carry out the degrading acts they request in front of webcams. Taking advantage of child exploitation laws that are much laxer than those that typically apply in most western countries, Southeast Asian and South American sex trafficking gangs lure young people with the promise of well-paid legitimate work, only to compel them to perform for foreign child abusers in squalid cybersex dens. These gangs are able to use surface web encrypted messaging apps such as Skype and WhatsApp to broadcast their livestreams, safe in the knowledge that the content they produce will be inaccessible to global law enforcement agencies. Even if the paedophiles who pay to watch the material they make are caught, sex trafficking gangs in these regions know the likelihood of them facing justice is slim.

Sextortion

Over the past few years, sextortion blackmailers have increasingly targeted social media users looking to meet potential partners and engage in sexual activity online. Often working from organised call centre-style environments, sextortion scammers contact potential victims on social media platforms such as Skype and Facebook, typically pretending to be an attractive young woman. After building a rapport, the fraudsters convince their victims to send them compromising images of themselves, either of in a state of undress or committing a sex act. As soon as they come into possession of the material they are looking for, sextortion scammers immediately turn nasty, demanding payment in exchange for not distributing the incriminating material to victims’ friends and family members. A number of UK victims are known to have taken their lives after being blackmailed by sextortion scammers. In a separate form of sextortion, paedophiles target mostly young women and girls to convince them to send naked pictures, and then blackmail them into performing degrading sex acts in front of a webcam for their own gratification. Both the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US and Britain’s National Crime Agency have recorded marked increases in reported cases of sextortion in recent years.

Online grooming

Paedophiles have long used the internet to both distribute indecent images of children and target victims to physically abuse, but the growing proliferation of social media platforms, smartphone apps and connected devices is offering them a much wider surface over which to operate – an opportunity they are taking full advantage of. As well as the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, online predators exploit messaging apps including Kik, musical.ly and Ask.fm to target potential victims, typically pretending to be young people themselves. In March, the UK’s National Crime Agency warned that paedophiles were targeting children on the hugely popular Fortnite game via the app’s text chat feature. Earlier this week, a British mother revealed how her son had been sexually abused after being groomed by a paedophile via his games console.

While big technology firms occasionally pay lip service to the protection of children and vulnerable people online, they spend a very small portion of their vast profits on making their platforms a less welcoming environment for paedophiles, sex traffickers and sextortion blackmailers. All the while they refuse to take any real action, it will fall to law enforcement authorities to do what they can to diminish the advantage online surface web tools have handed to these types of offenders. With this being an all but impossible task, the surface web is likely to remain a much more fruitful hunting ground for sexual predators than the dark web until governments force big tech companies to get their house in order and stop profiting from the suffering of the victims of online sexual exploitation.

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Allowing the use of drug-testing facilities at music festivals should be a no-brainer

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drug-testing facilities at music festivals

Many experts believe that some drugs which are currently illegal in most countries are on balance far less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Whether or not substances such as ecstasy, cannabis or LSD are safer than vices most western nations have deemed permissible is open to debate, but it is hard to argue against the fact that a great deal of the harm caused by illicit narcotics comes about as a result of the unregulated nature of the criminal markets on which they are sold. As has been the case for generations, drug users can never be truly sure what is in the substances they buy, regardless of how well they know and trust their supplier. While this has always been the case, the problem has been brought into sharp focus over recent years as drug producers have sought to outdo their rivals by making their products more potent than anything else on the market.

Illegal drugs have historically been cut with all manner of unpleasant ingredients, but evidence now suggests criminal gangs are seeking to set their products apart by making them as strong as possible, be that by adding greater quantities of MDMA to ecstasy tablets, or cutting batches of heroin with deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl. Meanwhile, less scrupulous drug producers continue to pass off products that bear little resemblance to what they claim they are, such as ecstasy pills that contain pentylone instead of MDMA. Caring little for the welfare of the people who end up taking the drugs they make, the criminal gangs behind the illicit narcotics trade have one motive; to make as much money as possible. As such, and in light of the fact that the legalisation of most outlawed drugs looks to be a very long way off in most countries, lawmakers and others should focus their energies on harm reduction.

One of the best ways of keeping drug users safe from harm is to empower them with the means to discover what is really in the substances they are planning to consume, and how strong they might be. This is what makes drug-testing stations at music festivals and nightclubs such a good idea. A number of major festivals, such as Groovin the Moo in Australia and Bestival in the UK, have adopted the concept, allowing drug testers onto their sites to anonymously analyse the composition of narcotics festival-goers are planning to take. Users can then make an informed decision as to whether they should consume their drugs or not. Testing carried out at a festival in the UK city of Bristol recently revealed ecstasy pills that were up to four times stronger than regular tablets. At the very least, arming drug users with information such as this gives them the opportunity to take smaller doses.

Despite the potential for drug-testing facilities at festivals to save lives, some are less than enthusiastic about the idea. Festival Republic surprised campaigners this month by announcing that it will not be allowing drug testers on site at its UK events this year, despite having applied to the British government for a licence that would have allowed it to do so. It has been speculated that the company’s licence application was most likely turned down, prompting it to make a business decision not to go ahead with testing. Doing so could leave it open to prosecution should any harm come to drug users who had their illegal substances tested. Other festival organisers in the UK that choose to go ahead with allowing drug-testing facilities at their events do so without a licence from authorities. The British government’s current position is that “no illegal drug can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them”. Commenting on the drug-testing service offered at Australia’s Groovin the Moo festival this year, the country’s Shadow Attorney General Jeremy Hanson claimed the decision to allow it to go ahead would encourage drug use.

It has become clear over the years that a zero-tolerance approach to drug use at nightclubs and music festivals simply does not work. If young people want to take drugs, they will more often than not find a way in which to do so. It is for this reason that allowing drug-testing facilities at festivals should be a no-brainer, particularly in the absence of sensible drug policies that would take the production of narcotics out of the hands of criminals who care little as to whether the end consumer of their products live or die. Only last month, two young people lost their lives after taking “dangerous high-strength or bad-batch” ecstasy pills at Portsmouth’s Mutiny Festival. If they had been able to have the tablets they were about to take tested, there is a chance they might still be alive today. Event organisers should not have to put themselves at risk of prosecution by allowing drug-testing facilities on site without the approval of the authorities. All the while legislators refuse to implement drug policies that could greatly reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the least they should do is sanction the use of drug-testing facilities at festivals and nightclubs that really could save lives.

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While ‘drill’ rap is not the sole cause of a spike in violence in the UK, it glamorises gun and knife crime

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glamorises gun and knife use

After receiving requests from police in London, Google-owned video-streaming platform YouTube has taken down a number of “drill” rap music videos that senior officers had claimed were helping to fuel a spate of violent crime across the UK. This followed a recent uptick in knife and gun crime in London that saw the city’s murder rate surpass that of New York last month, despite Britain’s notoriously restrictive gun laws. Over the course of the past two years, the Metropolitan Police has asked YouTube to remove as many as 60 drill rap videos that it claimed were inciting young men to commit violent crimes against gang rivals. The social media giant is said to have taken down over 30 of these, having discovered they violated its own policies. YouTube is also said to have developed new procedures to help its moderators identify and remove content related to knife and gun crime. But despite its recently-reported action, the platform still hosts numerous drill music videos in which young men, many of whom hide their faces behind masks, can be heard openly rapping about their readiness to resort to violence and willingness to use knives and firearms.

Drill rap videos routinely feature footage of young men posturing in gangs of varying sizes around social housing estates in inner-city locations, where they issue violent threats to their rivals and boast about their connections with the drugs trade, and the sometimes unpleasant manner in which they treat women. Viewers who are not up to speed with many of the slang terms drill rappers use are left in little doubt as to the content of the lyrics that accompany the videos, thanks to many of the artists who appear in them regularly making shooting and stabbing motions with their hands as they rap over sparse, sinister sounding beats. Discussing the threat posed by drill rap music during a radio interview earlier this month, Scotland Yard Commissioner Cressida Dick said social media firms have a responsibility to take down any material that might incite violence, noting: “[The videos] describe stabbing with great detail, and [with] great joy, obscene violence against women.”

Supporters of drill rap, which originates from Chicago, argue it is simply another in a long line of music genres that officials have tried to ban on account of a perceived malign influence on young people. However, it is hard to argue against the fact that few other types of music have been so inextricably linked with gang violence. Even artists from the 1990s golden era of US hip-hop failed to describe knife and gun crime with such casual glee as modern UK drill artists do routinely throughout their material. It is also commonly argued that the young men who make UK drill rap are simply reflecting the lives they and their contemporaries live in their lyrics, and that their art is not one of the many root causes of rising levels of violent crime in Britain. This suggestion would carry more weight if it were not for the fact that a number of young people have lost their lives on the streets of the UK as a result of threats issued in drill rap videos. Where once rivalries between rappers would be played out as much for the entertainment of listeners and fans than anything else, the gang affiliations of many drill artists can lead to situations in which individuals feel it becomes a question of honour and respect to carry out the threats they make in their songs.

This February, teenage rapper Junior Simpson was jailed for life after he and two others were convicted of stabbing 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall to death in South London. A court heard how Simpson had written lyrics describing the circumstances of the attack before it took place, and that Goupall had died following a series of threats issued between rival gangs in online music videos. Earlier this month, two young men who had appeared on popular rap DJ Tim Westwood’s YouTube channel were jailed for murdering a filmmaker. The Old Bailey heard how Devone Pusey, 20, and Kai Stewart, 18, knifed Dean Pascal-Modeste, 22, to death after making threats on drill rap videos. Also this month, it was reported that aspiring rapper Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton was shot dead after he recorded a rap video during which he challenged a rival group.

To blame the recent spike in violent crime in the UK solely on drill rap would be ridiculous, but it would be equally as thoughtless to argue that the genre does not play a role in glamorising the use of guns and knives, or that it has not been directly linked to incidents in which online threats have resulted in the loss of life. Social media firms have a moral responsibility to offer drill artists freedom of expression as much as they should a legal one to take down material that might incite violence, but in many cases, drill rap videos that remain accessible on YouTube openly promote the use of extreme violence. The social, political and economic drivers behind rising violent crime in Britain are complex, but it would be foolish to ignore the pernicious effect drill rap is having on some young people.

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