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.