Prescription medication

Fake benzodiazepines are causing serious harm overseas. But what are benzos and what do they do?

Benzodiazepines are a depressant substance, which means they slow the body down. Other depressants include alcohol, cannabis, and heroin. They’re also known as benzos, tranx, sleepers, downers, pills, xannies and other slang names related to specific brands of legal benzodiazepines.

Benzos are most commonly prescribed by doctors to relieve stress and anxiety and to help people sleep.  In New Zealand, illegally used benzos are usually diverted from these legal sources.

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What are the effects of taking benzos?

Common effects of benzodiazepines can include:

  • Sedation, sleepiness
  • Feelings of relaxation
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness

A higher dose of benzodiazepines can make you feel drowsy, confused, aggressive, and uncoordinated.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, sweating and shakiness.

Other symptoms can include muscle aches and pains, hallucinations, nightmares, fatigue, numbness, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, confusion, rapid mood changes, memory loss, and hyperactivity.

What are the risks of using benzos?

Benzodiazepines can cause overdose, particularly when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. They are also associated with dependence and withdrawal symptoms, even after a short period of use.

The growing availability of fake, or street, benzos internationally is also a concern. These fake pills can contain very harmful substances and have led to deaths overseas. For example, in 2019 the Centre for Forensic Science Research and Education identified the potent novel benzo flualprazolam as a contributing factor in over 40 deaths in the US.  It is now the second most commonly detected novel benzodiazepine in the US. Twelve deaths have been attributed to flualprazolam in the UK.

High Alert issued a notification for flualprazolam being sold as ‘Xanax’ in New Zealand in October 2020. These tablets were designed to imitate 2mg Pfizer produced Xanax brand tablets, which are not legitimately dispensed in NZ.

Fake benzo tablets have been illicitly manufactured which means they can have unpredictable dosages, increasing the risk of unintended overdose. Many pills internationally have been shown to have varying doses even within the same batch.

While no drug use is safest, there are some steps that can help reduce the risks.

  • Avoid redosing. This increases the chance of negative effects, like overdose.
  • Avoid mixing drugs, especially other central nervous system depressants like other benzos, opioids, and alcohol.
  • Have a plan – as with all drug use, it’s better to have people around that you trust and who have knowledge of first aid.

Always call an ambulance if someone:

  • is unconscious;
  • stops breathing;
  • has a seizure;
  • is extremely agitated for longer than 15 minutes;
  • has chest pain or breathing difficulties for longer than 5 minutes.

The NZ Drug Foundation has more resources on how to reduce harm from benzos.

If you’re concerned about your own drinking or drug taking, you can reach out to the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You'll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential. You can also chat with the team online through the website.