How Xanax Became a Teenager’s Drug of Choice

With counterfeit Xans readily available on the dark web, a generation of teenagers have found out the hard way that the pills aren’t as easygoing as they first thought.

Dan lives with his parents in a beautiful four-bed detached house in Surrey, the type with polished granite kitchen surfaces, ankle-deep cream carpets and a “family room”. He’s 17, into street wear, especially Nike and Supreme, and spends his weekends going to raves, messing about with graphic design software or catching up on coursework in his bedroom.

Dan doesn’t fit the profile of a former drug addict, but that’s exactly what he is. Until recently, like an increasing number of teenagers in Britain, he was regularly using a huge amount of the benzodiazepine Xanax – enough to make him physically dependent on the drug.

“For me, it’s easier to get Xanax than it is to get alcohol,” he says over the phone from his family home. “If I order alcohol off Amazon or whatever, I’ll have to sign on delivery. Xans, you can get next-day delivery and have it in your postbox waiting for you.” Xanax is cheap, too: anywhere between 30p to £3 a bar, depending on where Dan was buying it, from dark web marketplaces or the dealers at his sixth-form college.

Xanax is the trade name for alprazolam, a benzodiazepine sold by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. When prescribed for anxiety, doctors recommend 1.5mg a day, and to never surpass 4mg daily. At the height of his addiction, Dan was taking the equivalent of 5mg a day, and sometimes more if he was stressed about something (“meeting up with a girl, an exam, a night out”). Like the vast majority of UK users, though, the pills he was popping were likely counterfeit Xanax – alprazolam that had been pressed into tablets by DIY dealers and marketed on the dark web as the legitimate branded stuff, meaning his true daily dosage could have been even higher.

Like many teens now addicted to Xanax – or similar drugs from the benzodiazepine family – Dan was introduced to the pills recreationally at raves and parties, often mixing them with alcohol or other drugs. However, he quickly realized they were what he calls a “cure” for his anxiety – something he had suffered from throughout his teens, like his brother before him – and was the first of his group to become dependent. “I tried to keep it quiet, but if I was like, ‘I want to bring Xans [to school],’ it wasn’t an embarrassing thing to do,” he says. “It’s [seen as] kinda cool. It worked for me. I was pretending I was using them recreationally, when really I was reliant on them just to cope.”

In certain circles, Xanax has become such a common part of sixth-form education that, for the multiple teenagers I spoke to for this article, the drug’s use is seemingly viewed as on par with smoking behind the bike sheds or necking a Lambrini on lunch break: they talked about “popping Xans in the toilet”, “bowling around mellowed out” and “operating from within a bubble”. But unlike weed or alcohol, there is no paraphernalia, smell or red-eyes to alert others to their use. The majority of adults have little idea these drugs are being abused, because they’re basically invisible until they become a problem.

Alongside opioids like Percocet and OxyContin, Xanax bars have been stars of the US rap scene’s recent obsession with prescription pills. Since the death of Lil Peep in November, 2017 from the “combined toxic effects of fentanyl and alprazolam” there’s been something of a backlash against Xanax in the rap community – Lil Pump says he’s off it, Vic Mensa’s called out Future for normalizing its use, even Lil Xan says he’s quitting – but that’s yet to trickle down to all those British kids in bucket hats and creole earrings for whom Xanax is the drug of choice.

This is an issue. There’s a reason that, in the US rap scene, post-boom, Xanax seems to be starting to bust: it’s much more dangerous than many people assume it to be.

Prescription drugs seem safe because they’re legitimized by a medical seal of approval. In the UK, Xanax and other benzodiazepines – or “benzos” – are only a class C drug when misused, while weed is class B and heroin class A, further creating an illusion of safety.

Dan says that, after stealing money from his parents to fund his addiction, they demanded to see what he’d spent it on, so he took them to his room and showed them his huge stash of pills. “An interesting point is that my parents found my weed about two years ago and went ballistic, [but] when I showed them hundreds of Xans they didn’t get mad, because they saw it as prescription,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s not a drug, it’s medicine.’ Not bothered or fazed by it at all.”

Of course, while Xanax is a medicine, like many other medical grade drugs it’s easy to misuse, with negative side effects including insomnia, nausea and blacking out. Combining Xans with other drugs presents all sorts of problems, and they’re especially lethal when paired with opioids or alcohol; in around a third of all fatal overdoses in the US, a benzodiazepine is found. Once you become physically dependent on the pills – which doesn’t take long; a week or so of regular use will do it – you have to carefully wean yourself off. Getting the substance out of your system too quickly can lead to psychosis, brain damage, seizures and other side effects that can end in hospitalization or death.

While these dangers haven’t necessarily been taken onboard by teens or their parents in the UK, it seems the authorities are starting to pay attention. Parliament had its first debate about Xanax misuse this January; eight young people were hospitalized in Sussex over the Christmas period after taking the drug; and in May of last year police sent out an appeal after 20 teens needed medical treatment in one week as a result of taking Xanax.

Last week, Police Scotland issued a warning after at least 27 Xanax-related deaths were recorded in the country in 2017. Similar statistics from around the UK aren’t available, but join certain drug harm reduction discussion groups on Facebook, and reports of young people dying after mixing Xanax with alcohol and other substances appear with alarming regularity.

“This specific corner of sesh culture is equal parts nihilism, banter and bravado: it’s showing how hard you are via how fucked up you can get, how many substances you can get away with taking and in which settings.”

If you’re hugely messed up on Xanax, the internet slang to describe your state is “bartarded”. As James Nolan wrote on VICE last year, users post videos and stories of themselves being “bartards” online, “half as cautionary tales and half as boasts”. Often, these stories involve someone taking Xans and waking up hours or days later with no memory of the trail of destruction they’ve left behind. Blackouts are common – and, in fact, sometimes a goal.

Kristallo once collapsed in public – something he has no recollection of – and was told afterwards that he was repeating the phrase “I need a Xan” over and over. “I’ve lost bank cards on Xans, I’ve, you know, gone through weekends where I haven’t remembered a single thing because I’ve blacked out on them,” he says. Anna*, who takes Xanax for anxiety, but whose friends use it recreationally, told me: “My friend plans with his other mates to try to blackout before the end of the night. I do think, ‘You could have just stayed home,’ because they don’t remember any of it.”

This specific corner of sesh culture is equal parts nihilism, banter and bravado: it’s showing how hard you are via how fucked up you can get, how many substances you can get away with taking and in which settings. It’s showing how much you don’t care. As another teen, 17-year-old Carlos*, told me, “If you can go to one party and do a pill, three Xans, a bottle of lean or spirits and a gram of ket – or something like that – that shows that you’re not someone to fuck with.”

Social media is where this Xanax culture is thriving, and unfortunately it’ll continue to tick over here until it’s replaced by whatever drug comes next. But it’s not all bad online: with a lack of easily accessible information on Xanax addiction elsewhere, harm reduction-themed Facebook groups with thousands of members have been offering users advice in real-time, and – most importantly – reminding them to seek professional medical help when coming off Xanax.

Worryingly, Facebook has recently been shutting down groups set up by the popular harm reduction page Sesh Safety with no warning or explanation, saying only that posts have breached community guidelines. When we went to the company for comment, they wouldn’t add anything on the record, directing us only to their Community Standards – which was confusing, as the post that had been flagged as problematic (sent to us by a group administrator) didn’t appear to break any of the rules.

Perhaps the worry here – as is often the case with open conversations around drugs – is that in allowing groups to offer honest and realistic harm reduction advice, Facebook could be seen to be condoning problematic drug use. It’s an issue that prevents a lot of media organizations from engaging in much-needed pragmatic drug discussion and instead maintaining the status quo.

Whatever the reason, and whatever conversations people have, for now, Xanax use isn’t going anywhere – and you only have to talk to the drug’s users to find out why.

“This sounds very philosophical, but Xans are big because of how fluid in society you’ve gotta be,” says Dan. “One minute, you’ve gotta be calm, relaxed, social, confident, and the next you’re raving at a party. At college, your brain’s gotta be buzzing. It’s a difficult balance for a lot of people, especially people with mental health issues. We feel like we can’t meet that expectation.”

Predictably, social media is central to this. “It’s easy to portray the image of yourself as being all sex and drugs on Snapchat, but you’ve gotta go out and replicate that off social media,” Dan continues. “It’s a lot easier to speak online to someone. Offline, that’s when you’re like, ‘I’m not meeting these expectations.’ Your self-esteem goes down and you become more anxious.”

Exposed to Xanax via music or in social settings, a generation of teenagers – widely referenced as the most anxious on record – are discovering that the drug can help to pacify their anxiety. With access to the dark web, they’re free to self-medicate with no oversight, until they realize they’re physically dependent and can’t stop popping pills. This, clearly, is no good. The NHS is in crisis and the UK government refuses to engage with the drugs question in any meaningful way, but ignoring this particular drug trend is only going to lead to more pressure on services in future.

Like anyone who has pushed through Xanax withdrawal, Kristallo talks about his experience with a sense of horror. “The anxiety that I felt when I was coming off Xans, when I was trying to get clean… I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – cold sweats, shaking and paranoia,” he says. “Xans are a short-term kind of solution, and they can’t last forever. Once they finish, you end up worse mentally than before you initially started.”

Xanax for Social Anxiety Disorder

If you’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, the first line of medication treatment is usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). However, Xanax may be prescribed as a short-term option to help manage symptoms of anxiety. In this way, it’s not a “first-line” treatment, but rather a complement to other treatment options.

If your doctor has given you a prescription for Xanax, it is likely to treat the symptoms you experience that come on quickly. This isn’t a long-term treatment option, but rather a short-term solution to panic or anxiety that you experience in specific situations.

Xanax will not permanently cure your anxiety; rather, it helps to reduce your symptoms, often so that you can better participate in other forms of treatment, such as psychotherapy. Because Xanax starts working quickly, it will give you some immediate relief if you are suffering from severe bouts of anxiety.

How Xanax Works

Xanax provides fast relief of anxiety symptoms often seen in SAD and other anxiety disorders. It works specifically by binding to GABA receptors in your brain. This inhibits neuron activity (slows down your brain activity), and has the effect of reducing anxiety, fear, and feelings of terror—it might also leave you feeling sleepy, relaxed, and calm.

Xanax has a half-life of 11 hours. Half-life refers to how long it takes the body to eliminate half of the ingested dose. The clinical effectiveness of one immediate release Xanax (alprazolam) pill is often much shorter, with most people noticing a wearing off of the clinical effectiveness by 4 to 6 hours.2

Xanax is generally prescribed for a limited time. A doctor who prescribes this medication for longer than 8 weeks should check on the status of your anxiety to see if other treatment options might be more suitable.3

Xanax is taken in pill form and typical dosages of Xanax are 2 to 4 mg per day. If you have been prescribed Xanax, your doctor will probably start at a lower dose and adjust it upward to achieve optimal effects.

Xanax for SAD vs. Other Disorders

Xanax is most commonly prescribed for panic attacks, which occur as part of panic disorder and agoraphobia. It might also be used in the case of simple phobias for situations that rarely occur, such as a person who has a fear of flying. Xanax is helpful for panic-inducing situations as it can be used as needed before an event.

In the case of social anxiety disorder, Xanax is more commonly prescribed for cognitive symptoms such as worrying about performance or the judgment of others. In this case, Xanax can be taken about an hour before a performance event.

You should not take Xanax if you have a hypersensitivity to benzodiazepines, have acute narrow-angle glaucoma, or are pregnant or breastfeeding. Xanax has also not been shown effective for people under age 18.

People with liver or kidney problems also should not take Xanax. As this medication is processed by these organs, if they are not working correctly, Xanax may build up in your body leading to the possibility of overdose or heavy sedation.

Risks and Side Effects of Taking Xanax

There are several factors to keep in mind when taking Xanax. Good communication with your doctor can help you determine what’s normal and when to be concerned.

Xanax Side Effects

The most common side effects of taking Xanax are sedation and drowsiness. In general, benzodiazepines such as Xanax have fewer side effects than other longer-term medications for anxiety. Avoid driving, operating machinery, and participating in hazardous activities until you know how you react to Xanax.

Medication Interactions

A number of medication interactions can potentially occur with Xanax. It is important that your doctor is aware of all the medications you are currently taking. In addition, the effects of Xanax may be intensified if combined with alcohol.

Dependence and Withdrawal

There is a risk of emotional and physical dependence when taking Xanax. Withdrawal symptoms are possible if the medication is abruptly stopped and may include the risk of seizures.2

Be sure to follow your doctor’s directions for stopping Xanax or changing the dosage. Over time, there is a risk of your brain producing less GABA naturally, which may make Xanax less effective. If you have a history of substance abuse or addiction, Xanax may not be the best treatment option.

Obtaining a Xanax Prescription

If you’ve suffered for a long time with anxiety, you may wonder how to get prescribed Xanax and if it could help. While it is something that you can ask your doctor about, ultimately he or she will make the decision about the best treatment options for your situation.

It is important not to use Xanax obtained from someone else. Not only is it illegal to take a medication without a prescription, but it can be dangerous. Besides the risk of dependence and withdrawal, combining Xanax with other substances that subdue your nervous system such as painkillers, antihistamines, and alcohol can be dangerous.4

Xanax should only be taken under the advice of a prescribing physician. In addition, Xanax can cause feelings of euphoria when taken in too large of doses, or by people who don’t have anxiety. For all of these reasons, stay clear of taking a medication such as Xanax that was not prescribed for you.

What to Do If Xanax Does Not Work

If you find that prescription Xanax is not helping your anxiety, talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to either adjust the dose or choose a different medication. Remember that Xanax should form just one part of a larger treatment plan most likely including talk therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Xanax is not a replacement for other treatments, it’s part of a larger plan.

A Word From Verywell

If you have been prescribed Xanax for your social anxiety you may feel nervous and unsure about taking the medication. These feelings are normal and to be expected. Talk with your doctor about your concerns, to ensure that the treatment plan you devise is optimal for your situation.

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