Xanax: The cult drug engulfing anxious young Brits

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Xanax is rapidly becoming the "cult" drug of choice among young people and requires an immediate inquiry, parents, doctors and MPs have warned.

Teenagers and young adults - seduced by its popularity in rap lyrics and American culture - are experimenting with the potent tranquilliser, also known as alprazolam, as a party drug or even to self-medicate against their anxiety.

Many we spoke to for our story spoke of "popping Xans" or "Xannies" - which is around 10 times stronger than Valium - as if it is the equivalent of drinking alcohol or smoking.

Some obtain it from local dealers, others from the dark web or US pharmacies, but there is also a booming market on social media.

Within a matter of minutes, we were able to contact a dealer on Instagram and was offered 10 Xanax pills. Ten minutes later, a second seller offered us 100.

So what is fuelling this craze? How prevalent is it? And why are doctors so worried?

  • ‘We need to know more’: The grieving family demanding answers

Georgia Jackson, 21, described by her family as a "unique girl with a brilliant sense of humour", took her own life in December, two days after using the drug.

In what appears to a first in Britain, the coroner at the inquest ruled that Xanax played a significant role in Georgia's death as she warned of its "pernicious influence".

Speaking for the first time since Georgia died, her mother Cherry told ITV News that she needed to know more about the drug and its potentially catastrophic impact on Georgia and others before she could accept the coroner's verdict.

"We don't know enough," she said. "I'd be interested in hearing how many other deaths there have been and the number taking their own life after taking Xanax - I'd like to know."

Robin Smart, Georgia's stepfather, added: "Georgia made a conscious decision to take Xanax and if it contributed towards her not being here today then we do need to find out more about what this drug is about."

Read more of Georgia's story

  • ‘Everything was so dark’: The ex-addict

DJ Oneman, a popular London-based artist, was addicted to the drug for three years until he checked into a rehabilitation centre last year.

Xanax killed two of his dear friends, caused the breakdown of his marriage and nearly wrecked his career.

"It really takes hold of you and you don’t know how bad the problem is - you don’t realise how dark it can get."

He now wants Britain to wake up to an issue that he fears has silently exploded.

"It has gone under the radar for too long - for too long,” he said. "Now it's landed in the UK and made its mark, it's only going to get worse - it can only get worse."

He blames rap music for the glamourisation of Xanax as a "cult" drug.

"There needs to be something in place where these guys can’t talk about it in their songs - I wouldn't have heard it without it and I don't think half the kids in the country would have heard about it without it."

In a further sign that social media is changing the nature of drug-taking and dealing in the UK, DJ Oneman gave an insight into the ease at which young people can get hold of Xanax.

A dealer attempts to sell Xanax after a message on social media. Credit: ITV News

"You can get Xanax easily - easily," he said.

Holding up his phone, he went on: "This can now be your dealer. I used to follow this Instagram page, DM him and then buy Xanax. It’s so scary, especially with kids because all they use is this and all they are on most of the day is Instagram."

Reflecting on the gravity of his addiction, he said: "I’m lucky that when I went to rehab at the start of last year, the fakes weren’t as prevalent as they are now.

"If I’d have carried on, I don’t think I’d be here."

  • The fakes

A dealer selling what he claims to be Xanax on Instagram.

The "fakes" that DJ Oneman is referring to is the surge of counterfeit Xanax pills that have flooded the market.

With Xanax not prescribed on the NHS and only available on private prescription, dealers have sought to capitalise on growing demand by producing fake versions.

The counterfeits are often very similar in appearance to the genuine medication but some have been found to be laced with fentanyl - a drug more potent than heroin.

  • ‘She changed overnight’: The 14-year-old who was hooked

Jane's story is proof that Xanax is appealing to an even younger audience. Her daughter was just 14 when she became addicted after being introduced to the drug by her friend’s drug-dealer boyfriend.

"She changed overnight - literally overnight," she told ITV News.

"She was hooked on it to the point where she was becoming violent, uncontrollable and - if it wasn’t the drug itself that killed her - she was in danger of killing herself while under the influence of it. It was daily torture."

The situation escalated to a point where Jane, a single mother from north London, feared her daughter was being groomed through her addiction and had her arrested for her own safety.

"I said [to the police officers] that’s not my daughter who you’re putting in the back of that van - it’s the drug. I felt physically sick doing it. It still upsets me."

- Have you been affected by Xanax in the UK? Contact: jamie.roberton@itn.co.uk

Reminiscent of Georgia Jackson’s story, Jane's daughter started taking it to cope with her symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"That’s why she started taking it - child and adult mental health services have absolutely failed her time and time again."

While she is no longer taking Xanax and receiving psychiatric treatment, the consequences are still having a lasting impact on the family. Jane believes her daughter "will be lucky to get two GCSEs" when she takes her exams next year.

Jane describes the issue of Xanax as an "epidemic" which demands a response from all levels of society.

"We need to have a conversation in schools about this, from a very early age, to raise awareness of what these drugs are and the repercussions of trying it - it can destroy your family and future - mine has been utterly devastated by this."

Asked how her daughter now feels about Xanax, Jane replied: "She said it made her feel better and it was fun but she now says: don’t do it - it ruins your life."

  • ‘It’s only getting worse’: The doctors warning of crisis

Doctors have warned of an emerging crisis in Xanax abuse. Credit: ITV News

There is currently no firm data on the number of deaths or hospital admissions linked to Xanax but the anecdotal evidence suggesting increased abuse is growing by the day.

Dr Adrian Harrop, an A&E doctor based in Sunderland, said the issue had gone "unnoticed" and was "only getting worse".

"In the past 12-18 months, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people presenting themselves to the A&E department having taken Xanax and being under the influence of Xanax,"

"Some of these patients are in an extremely bad way by the time they arrive in the emergency department: often unconscious, unable to support their own weight and very many end up on the intensive care unit for a lengthy period of time needing support."

Dr Harrop said long delays in children being able to access mental health care was a major factor in the increase in Xanax. A report last year found some children were waiting as long as 18 months for treatment.

"That's not acceptable in a country like ours: children and young people having to resort to seeking illicit drugs on social media to treat them themselves - that's not appropriate and needs immediate action by the government."

Admissions to UK Addiction Treatment Centres for sole Xanax addiction have doubled in the past year, with almost half of those seeking help under 25 years old.

Eytan Alexander, the founder of the firm which runs six facilities across the UK, described Xanax as a "ticking time bomb" and attributed the surge in cases to the current lack of stigma attached to the anti-anxiety drug.

"We're seeing addicts in their early twenties taking longer to safely detox this drug from their body than someone on heroin, with horrifically worse withdrawal symptoms.

"To be clear, this is an extremely potent drug and one that can become highly addictive incredibly quickly."

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth described the reports as "hugely worrying" and called on the government to "take this seriously" and launch an immediate inquiry to establish the extent of the problem.

"I think the government have been quite slow on this issue so I'm hopeful that the government will act with some sense of urgency because I believe this is becoming an increasingly big problem among our young people and yet so far we've had little action from our national NHS bosses on it."

When approached by ITV News for comment on the issue of Xanax, a government spokesperson said: "Controlled prescription-only medicines such as Xanax can be potent, by their very nature, and should only be prescribed by a doctor or appropriate healthcare professional.

"Law enforcement agencies continue to work with internet providers to shut down UK-based websites found to be selling these drugs illegally. We are clear that social media companies must go further and faster in reducing the risks their platforms pose and are considering all options to make this happen."

  • - Have you been affected by Xanax in the UK? Contact: jamie.roberton@itn.co.uk