UK rise in deaths from Xanax must be tackled at root cause

Dr Jack Cunliffe comments on the issues around the rise in Xanax deaths in the UK and the increase of purchases being made on the darknet - and how it could be curbed.

‘There has been a lot of concern recently about a rise in Xanax (the brand name for the sedative drug alprazolam) usage here in the UK, with reports of increasing deaths in Northern Ireland, high usage and death rates in Scotland and specific clinics being set up in London to address what is increasingly being perceived as “darknet fuelled drug epidemic”.

‘Mention of the darknet is certain to trigger the public’s imagination but we need to stop and think what is driving young people to go through the process of logging onto these nefarious online marketplaces, risking their money to make such purchases, rather than attribute their existence as the sole cause.

‘My own upcoming research, in collaboration with the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London and the University of Montreal, does show a rise in the popularity of sedative drugs on darknet markets, with the UK level increasing at the quickest pace, and it does show that there has been an increase in the purchasing of the most potent sedative alprazolam – where in the USA is has been the most common version all along. However, diazepam, the ‘traditional’ sedative prescribed in the UK, is still the by some way the most popular.

‘Does this mean that it is that the darknet is fuelling this crisis though? These markets function much like eBay and our research in other drugs products has shown that these online markets are demand-led; reacting to what is being bought and increasing availability of products accordingly and therefore a reflection of what youth want, rather than a cause.  Not only that – but government operations to close them seem to not only fail but increase their overall popularity.

‘The solution is not breathless attempts to clamp down on these avenues of purchase, as they are likely to at best fail and at worse increase the problem, but to educate people about these products and treat it as a health problem, informing people about the dangers of abuse of these drugs in their entirety. Darknet sources remain niche and comparatively rare compared to traditional way of obtaining drugs, and in much the same way that there are concerns about depression amongst youth the causes of the ‘Xanax crisis’ are complex, and will require holistic solutions rather than reductive attention to simplified darknet moral panics.’

The University’s Press Office provides the media with expert comments in response to topical news events. Colleagues who would like to learn more about how to contribute their expertise or how the service works should contact the Press Office on 3985 or pressoffice@kent.ac.uk