A growing number of children are using the anti-anxiety drug Xanax to “self-medicate” against mental health problems, prompting calls from senior Labour MPs for an investigation into the escalating use of the tranquilliser, which is around 20 times stronger than Valium.
Xanax has seen a sharp rise in popularity in the past year, with some experts saying it has become one of the top five drugs used by young people, alongside cannabis and alcohol. Known as alprazolam in its generic form, Xanax can easily be bought from street dealers, online pharmacies or the dark web for as little as £1 a pill.
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Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth is joining Labour MP Bambos Charalambous to urge Public Health England to look into the apparent boom in usage after one of Charalambous’s constituents said her daughter had been groomed using Xanax. Ashworth said: “Some of the stories we are hearing about this are shocking. We need to raise awareness and have a proper understanding of the implications of this. I hope that the government … plans for greater research on the impact this is having on many adolescents’ lives.”
Charalambous, who will address a debate on the drug in parliament on Monday night, said: “Some young people are using Xanax to self-medicate to cope with anxiety, while younger teenagers are being groomed and exploited by drug pushers taking advantage of the drug’s ‘zombie-like’ effects. The government needs to research its use and gather clear data, raise public awareness and put support in place for those who have developed a dependency.”
The news comes after a spate of Xanax-related hospitalisations over Christmas, prompting Lewes police in East Sussex to warn people at New Year’s Eve events about the dangers of taking Xanax and other prescription drugs. Charity workers believe most teenagers taking Xanax are doing so for recreational use, but significant anecdotal evidence is suggesting that many are trying to manage anxiety and other mental health problems.
Nick Hickmott at the charity Addaction said: “I think the self-medication taps into CAMHS [child and adolescent mental health services] waiting lists and young people not having access to good mental health care.
“Young people don’t have the time to explore anxiety and paranoia, and pressure and stress. Young people are looking for answers and they’re not necessarily looking to GPs, carers or drug workers – they’re looking to each other.”
Hickmott says he had learned of a teenager who bought 300 pills on the dark web and sold them at school. “So it’s not so much the big bad dealers coming down from London to snap up all these kids who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Addaction believes more needs to be done to educate young people about the harm involved in taking Xanax, including the addictive nature of the drug, and where they can go to seek help. In the last few months there have been several reports of people being hospitalised after taking Xanax in Sussex, Somerset, Kent and Cumbria.
The drug has also achieved greater publicity through online and celebrity culture. In November last year, 21-year-old rapper Lil Peep died from an accidental overdose of Xanax and the painkiller Fentanyl in the US, where the former is widely prescribed.
Charalambous’s constituent, Michaela, said her 14-year-old daughter had fallen in with “the wrong crowd” over the summer holidays and quickly spiralled downwards after using Xanax. She said: “It’s scarily easy to get hold of. When she was on Xanax she would act like she was really drunk, really dopey like a zombie, and then the next day she would be really aggressive and quite violent.
“She’s looking for something to make her feel better. And these people introduced her to something that temporarily makes her feel better,” Michaela added.
She warned that things can change quickly: “Her school reports were impeccable, and she’s gone from that, six months ago, to being expelled.”
Professor Malcolm Lader, a clinical psychopharmacologist at King’s College London, said Xanax could be used as a date-rape or grooming drug due to its amnesia-inducing effects: “[Users] become zombie-like. They’re dazed. It’s an introductory drug to more serious abuse. If they’re taking it every day … they’re going to be staggering around.”
Xanax is part of a wider class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, which are known to cause physical and psychological dependence. The drug interacts strongly with alcohol, greatly increasing the risk of overdose
James first took Xanax aged 15, and said he “loved it”. He said: “Mixing Xanax with weed made me feel 10 times more drowsy than before. It gave me a confidence boost which was nice because before I suffered with anxiety.
“Then, not realising the addictive side effects, I built up a tolerance and was taking around a bar [large pill] every couple of days. It was cheap [£5 a pill] and it was glamourised all over social media.”