Women are finding friends with benzos.
Devastating encounter with the ex. I need Xanax or Klonopin rn. Please, someone, anyone, message me.
Freaking out over manuscript deadlines. Who can spot me some Xanax?
These are the daily missives that pop up on a secret Facebook group, one of many networks in which Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium—drugs classified as benzodiazapines and commonly prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions—get shared.
A couple days later, the manuscript writer, who's based in Brooklyn, receives a package from one of the group's other members, a woman in Seattle, who is a relative stranger. No payment was exchanged between the two women; this was simply a favor. While one woman got a handful of benzodiazepines, no prescription necessary, what did the other woman get from this transaction?
In the name of camaraderie and shared allegiances, secret Facebook groups offer women access to publishing contacts, apartments, and anxiety meds. That last one, what those in the medical profession call diversion, is a felony. It's also quickly becoming a phenomenon. In the most recent available stats, the White House's Office of National Drug Policy reported that more than 54 percent of people who use pain meds (including benzos and opiates) obtained them for free from a friend, not a doctor.
Buying (or freegan-ing) a few happy pills off a friend may seem harmless, but experts are now pointing to this phenomenon as one key factor in the current epidemic of overdoses across the US. "The epidemic of opioid overdose deaths is in large part due to the combination of opioids, like Vicodin, and benzodiazepines," notes Karen Miotto, a psychiatrist and professor at UCLA who specializes in addiction psychiatry. Abuse of benzodiazepines is largely overshadowed by the opioid epidemic, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resulted in 28,648 deaths in the United States in 2014. The CDC reported that benzos were involved in 31 percent of those deaths. A 2014 report from the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports a five-fold increase in deaths from benzodiazepine overdose over the previous 13 years.
Using this data, Marcus Bachhuber, an assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, conducted a study that indicated how deadly abuse of benzodiazepines can be. Concerned about the dangers of casual benzodiazepine diversion, Bachhuber explains that the CDC's data that informed his study has severe limitations, meaning that there's a pretty big chance that deaths resulting from benzo abuse are being underreported.
"We have more effective options, like new SSRI antidepressants with no risk of overdose to treat anxiety, and yet use of benzos is going up," he says. "It's unclear why doctors are still prescribing benzodiazepines at such a high rate." However, one consequence of over-prescribing these drugs is that people have leftover drugs to share.
Over-prescribing of benzos can allow people to get their hands on these meds more easily. "A lot of people are getting anti-anxiety medication from their primary care physicians, and not necessarily someone trained in psychiatry," says Stephanie Hartselle, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Brown University. So, you have this trend of women going to their primary care provider and requesting benzos, because these drugs have this reputation as an immediate panacea to anxiety, as opposed to antidepressants, which take anywhere from two to six weeks of continued use to feel an effect.
"Benzos are quietly seductive for women because they are often given at low doses as a calming agent to help with coping skills from the primary care physician," says Harold Jonas, a practicing psychotherapist and the president and founder of Sober.com. Receiving a prescription from a primary care doc might make the drugs seem more harmless than if they were prescribed by a mental health specialist in conjunction with talk therapy, Jonas surmises. "Women often believe benzos are innocuous because of their ease of availability and abundance — prompting them to share with others because the medical community, who is to blame, has made them very accessible with no apparent stigma attached to asking for them."
These women who become comfortable sharing meds could end up skipping a doctor's diagnosis altogether. "Anxiety comes in different forms and can be a harbinger for something else – something that can be missed by someone who is not a professional doctor," Hartselle explains. "Trained psychiatrists use benzodiazepines as a bridge to a medication that's more sustainable, like an SSRI antidepressant, of which there are many these days."
A woman who requested to be called Jane tells me about sharing her Klonopin with a colleague, someone she knew IRL, but not intimately. Jane's colleague asked for Klonopin to help her sleep, so Jane, eager to please, gave in, even though the instructions on her pill bottle prohibit doing so.
"I can't say for sure that sharing my pills led to this, but six months later, this woman had a complete mental breakdown. She got fired, and last I heard she had a psychotic break. Turns out she was also taking Xanax, Adderall, Ketamine—plus, she had a daily weed smoking habit. And I had no idea. If I did, I wouldn't have shared my meds; she's clearly a drug addict. What does that make me?" Jane says.
Charges from pill sharing "can be low-level felonies or high-end misdemeanor nickel and dime cases. Both parties engaged in pill sharing are penalized, but the person distributing the drugs can be charged with felony distribution," Mark McBride, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, says. And he's not even talking major weight. "I had someone who had one Xanax and one Vicodin and got charged as a low-level felony. If you're mailing as few as ten pills across state lines, the Feds will get a charge out of that."
For those on the receiving end of the sharing, things can get dicey, too. If, say, you get in a car accident after popping a pill from a friend, there can be additional legal ramifications of being under the influence of a controlled substance that you came by via illegal means .
So, essentially, by sharing pills, you become a drug dealer. And though benzo diversion is not likely to turn you into a hardened criminal, addictions worsen and women turn on each other after these exchanges.
Yamalis Diaz, clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, notes that one of the greatest sources of anxiety millennial women face stems from the same place they turn to alleviate their worries: the internet community. It presents constant access to what people think about them. In this environment, she asserts, women find themselves in a constant comparative state.
So it's quite plausible that women are sharing benzos to justify their own use of them, and using digital media to do so only highlights the ways people can internalize social media, and rely on it for a lifeline. But with benzos to blame for almost a third of the deaths in an American opioid epidemic, it seems like keeping your meds to yourself might be the best way to be a better friend.