KOLD INVESTIGATES: The Rise of Xanax - Tucson News Now


Xanax pills are known as xanbars or handlebars. (Source: johnofhammond / Flickr) Xanax pills are known as xanbars or handlebars. (Source: johnofhammond / Flickr)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

It's not widely known as a street drug, but alprazolam is one of the most addictive prescription drugs and it's in the hands of people all over southern Arizona.

The MARK Youth and Family Care Campus, a drug rehabilitation center on Tucson's east side, said it has seen an increase in young people misusing or abusing the drug.

"I'm seeing it being used more recreationally among young people," MARK director John Leggio said. "From teenagers, young teenagers, through the college age."

Leggio said 30-40 percent of his patients have admitted to abusing Xanax and most are between 13 and 25 years old.

"They do real high-risk type of behaviors," Leggio said. "It could be anything from fighting to jumping off buildings to making very bad decisions."

Alprazolam, sold under the brand name Xanax, is classified as a benzodiazepine or "benzo."

According to the DEA, some of the dangers of abusing these psychoactive drugs include impaired memory, judgment, paranoia and thoughts of suicide.

The DEA said combining alprazolam with other substances, particularly alcohol, can slow the heart rate and breathing, and possibly lead to death.

Tucson News Now spoke to a young, recovering drug addict who admitted to abusing and misusing Xanax for several years.

He said he was just a normal teenager, hanging out at local malls with friends, until drugs took over his life.

"You don't understand your behavior," he said. "You don't understand that its literally changing who you are as a person."

He said he once smoked Xanax and his friends would mix it with alcohol. He even admitted to selling the pills, known as xanbars or handlebars, to University of Arizona students.

"We were buying 5,000 at a time the first time then 10,000 and 20,000 bars," he said. "When you take it, you don't realize what it's doing to you."

Overdosing And Death

(Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse)

According to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, they get between 700 and 800 calls per year where a person is exposed to a "benzo" for any reason -- that's about two calls a day.

"This class of medication is a very common medication to be used, but really needs to be done under the supervision of a health care professional." said Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.

Below is a chart of the number of patients who admitted to abusing or are suspected of abusing benzodiazepines when they called the center, according to Boesen.

2007 55
2008 37
2009 54
2010 31
2011 44
2012 50
2013 26
2014 35
2015 30
2016 63

Boesen said it's important to note that the numbers reflect any call that involved a benzodiazepine, but there may have been other medications involved.

Meanwhile, a research program at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine aims to provide chronic pain patients with alternatives to addictive drugs.

"It's our responsibility and it's our job to make sure that when we prescribe something, we prescribe it for the right person and the right environment," said Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, one of the chronic pain management leads at the UA College of Medicine -- Tucson in the Department of Anesthesiology and clinician at Banner-University Medical Center.

Dr. Amol Patwardhan, also one of the chronic pain management leads, said they're seeing positive results, but overcoming addiction isn't easy.

"Xanax can lead to dependence, sometimes physical dependence," Patwardhan said. "When people want to come off of it, it can be very troublesome. The symptoms can lead from anything from just worsening of anxiety, some tremors, all the way up to seizures."

As these doctors work to educate their patients about these drugs, those overcoming addictions hope they never relapse.

"What I've done to my brain, the people I've hurt, the bridges I've burnt, the trust that I've broken. It's not worth it at all," said the young, recovering drug addict.

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