The national drug epidemic is deadlier than ever.
According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 100,000 people in the US fatally overdosed on drugs during 12 months ending in April 2021.
The deaths are nearly 30% higher than the previous year, a massive spike. Well over half of those deaths were due to fentanyl, a dangerously potent opioid painkiller. In clinical settings, fentanyl is used to treat severe pain. On the street, however, the drug often contaminates other illicitly purchased drugs, resulting in unintentional drug overdoses.
The steady presence of fentanyl in street drugs has itself been cause for alarm – alarm justified by the CDC’s data. However, recent news stories from Canada report a frightening new trend in that country’s drug markets. Called “benzo dope,” the term refers to the increasing presence of benzodiazepine tranquilizers in illicit drug supplies … including supplies of fentanyl.
What You Need To Know About Benzos … And Why They Can Be Dangerous
A September 2021 report from the British Columbia Coroners Service reported benzodiazepines were found in nearly 60% of samples taken from drugs involved in fatal overdoses reported in the province in May 2021. The most common benzo found in the Canada overdoses was etizolam, a tranquilizer not used medically in the US.
Benzodiazepines (more commonly known as “benzos”) have many legitimate medical uses. Most often prescribed under the brand names Xanax and Valium, these medications are used to treat panic and sleep disorders. The drugs work by raising the amount of a neurotransmitter called GABA in our brains. GABA blocks signals between the brain’s nerve cells, which can have a calming or even euphoric effect.
However, benzos are dangerous and addictive when abused. Although more research needs to be done, benzodiazepine abuse seems to be increasing: a study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in 2018 found nearly 20% of benzo use in the US qualified as drug abuse.
It’s worth pointing out the term “drug abuse” doesn’t just mean illicit drugs. Any drug can be abused; indeed, prescription painkiller abuse has been a massive driver of lethal overdoses for many years. Drug abuse includes behaviors such as:
· Taking medication for longer than prescribed
· Using someone else’s prescription
· Using drugs in ways they weren’t intended for, like crushing and snorting pills instead of swallowing them
· Using drugs to enjoy their side effects rather than what they were intended for
Back to the situation in British Columbia. While contaminated drug supplies have been a risk to drug users for decades, the emergence of benzo-contaminated drugs is notably more dangerous in two distinct ways.
Reason #1: Unexpected Drug Effects Increase Substance Abuse’s Risks
“Let the buyer beware” is great advice for anyone purchasing drugs on the street. There are no regulations, no guarantees, no quality checking – the only assurance a drug is what it’s being sold as comes from the dealer. In some cases, it might mean a person purchases a relatively harmless substance like powdered milk or baby laxative instead of the drug they wanted to purchase.
In other cases, a user expecting the effects of one drug may not be ready for the effects of another. While both opioids and benzos are capable of producing some of the same euphoric effects, high doses of benzos can affect a person’s memories and nervous system in some very disturbing ways.
A recent Vice article on benzo dope described a user blacking out on her couch for 48 hours after taking what she assumed was crack cocaine – her drugs had been contaminated with benzodiazepines. Another described falling asleep at the wheel of her car after mistakenly taking benzo dope.
Benzodiazepines can cause memory problems; studies have shown the drugs can cause memory loss for future events. Rohypnol, a member of the benzodiazepine family, has been called a “date rape” drug because of its effects on memory.
Purchasing street drugs comes with plenty of risks – robbery, assault, and poisoning among them. Dealing with an assortment of completely unexpected side effects is just another dangerous risk of drug use.
Reason #2: Benzos Are Lethal When Mixed With Other Drugs
Combining benzos with other drugs is exceptionally risky and a chief driver of overdoses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, cites a study that found patients who had been prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioid painkillers were 10 times more likely to die from overdoses.
Also, even fast-acting benzodiazepines can act more slowly in the body than opioids can, meaning their effects can be seriously delayed. As for overdoses, there’s no equivalent of Narcan to treat benzodiazepine overdoses.
Finally, benzodiazepines are addictive – and benzodiazepine addiction isn’t easy to treat. The effects they have on the brain can create lingering effects which last for months, complicating recovery. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be very complex and potentially deadly due to seizures, adding further complications.
An Ongoing Cycle Of Risk
First street opioids were contaminated with fentanyl … now fentanyl is contaminated with other drugs. It’s a dangerous cycle that makes substance use riskier than ever. Substance abuse is treatable, however – even if one is addicted to benzodiazepines and fentanyl.
The sober living must play a major role, however. Being able to recover in a controlled, monitored environment is a great advantage. Not only are you living with people who share your goal, but a sober living home is also a safe place where potential complications can be addressed and treated safely.
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