The Benzo Trap

Improving our understanding of benzodiazepines would save many lives, says Kevin Flemen.

Non-medical use of benzodiazepines creates big challenges for treatment services. There need to be significant changes in how we respond if we are to reduce dependency and fatalities related to this family of drugs.

The extent of non-prescribed benzo use is poorly understood. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) reports a drop in use, but anecdotal information from drug services, including young people’s services, suggests the opposite is true.

The CSEW data is highly suspect in relation to benzos, and this may be because it misses key using populations. Questions to identify benzo use need to be carefully framed too – would young people taking ‘Xans’ automatically know that this is alprazolam, a benzodiazepine? If not, standard screening questions such as ‘have you used benzodiazepines in the past six months?’ are liable to under-count actual use.

Further, not all our benzo-type drugs will show up on urine screens, possibly because the stronger ones produce effect at very low doses – producing lower levels of metabolites below the detection threshold. And some of the drugs, such as etizolam, are thienodiazepines not benzodiazepines, so won’t produce metabolites that show up on a standard screen.

Mousetrap with pills on it
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Young people

Young people’s benzo use appears to have increased. Some of this is recreational, influenced by popular culture, including a new generation of rappers whose image and lyrics have popularised Xanax. For others, use may be self-medicating for trauma, anxiety or other negative mental health conditions.

The trap here is the slow access that too many young people encounter when seeking help from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Long waiting lists or failure to meet the threshold to access services mean young people may be waiting months for access to CAMHS, if they can access the service at all.

In the meantime, some will find benzos and start to self-medicate. When and if the young person does access mental health services there is a good chance – in classic ‘dual diagnosis ping pong’ – that they will be told they have a primary presenting drug problem and therefore should be referred to a drug service. In turn, when they present to the drug service they may well find a paucity of treatment options to assist with their benzo dependency.

The benzo backlash

The increase in the use of Xanax may have started among young people, but the wider pattern of non-prescribed benzo use has been an ongoing issue and has morphed over time. Initial benzo dependency was largely driven by massive over-prescribing and long-term prescribing, something that has been addressed but remains an issue.

The path to hell is, however, paved with good intentions. The ongoing guidance to GPs to carefully consider the need for benzo prescribing and review existing patients has certainly reduced the extent of benzos being prescribed in the UK. But without measures to address the underlying reasons why people feel they need tranquillisers, people ended up seeking these drugs first from online pharmacies, then via the NPS market off the dark web and, ultimately, off the streets. This has allowed people to build up tolerance to novel benzos at far higher doses than they would have obtained on the NHS. These same patients, when presenting to GPs for treatment, may encounter the same reluctance to prescribe benzos that pushed them to the street market in the first place.

Prescribing trap

The NICE BNF guidance on benzos for the treatment of anxiety allows for doses up to 30mg a day. For someone who has a significant street-acquired strong benzo habit, the BNF upper limit may be well below that person’s current dose. The dose equivalence for someone using four 2mg alprazolam a day (8mg x 20) would be 160mg diazepam – more than five times the BNF upper limit for treating anxiety.

Where services do have a benzo-prescribing pathway it typically requires a person to reduce themselves off their own illicit benzos to a level where drug services or GPs could take over prescribing. This approach effectively directs a person to continue purchasing off the illicit market, with all the risks that this entails. It is the equivalent of having an arbitrary maximum dose of 30ml methadone and saying to heroin users they should reduce themselves off street heroin until they get to this level.

This situation also assumes that the person has continued access to illicit benzos that they can taper off. If a person has been purchasing off a dark web site which is then shut down, they could be left without any access to drugs, withdrawing off a high dose with no access to legal substitutes. This brings with it huge risks, including psychosis and life-threatening convulsions.

Ashton Manual

Many professionals and people seeking help online will find the Ashton Manual, a guide to benzo reduction and withdrawal by Professor C Heather Ashton. A helpful resource for many, the manual and related resources create two key challenges. First, for some people, reading the manual could reinforce fear and anxiety of withdrawal symptoms. There is a risk that people will anticipate and expect symptoms and could therefore experience a wider range of symptoms and with greater severity.

Second, the withdrawal schedules suggested by Ashton typically reflect people reducing off NHS-prescribed dose ranges. Where people have built up dependency on stronger novel benzos, and built up high tolerance on street drugs, following the sort of slow tapers proposed by Ashton could take one to two years or longer to complete. While on the one hand very slow tapers as described by Ashton minimise risks of unpleasant or dangerous symptoms, they can prove prohibitively and unnecessarily slow for people who have been using at high doses. Minute dose reductions can lead to people fixating on each reduction, and losing motivation over a protracted reduction programme.

Unknown tablets

Efforts to accurately substitute prescribe for illicitly acquired benzo habits are further confounded by our uncertainty as to the specific drug and specific dose that the person is actually taking.

A significant amount of the tablets sold as Xanax could contain one or more other compounds. Alprazolam may or may not be present – weaker or stronger benzos could be present, and these could be shorter or longer acting than alprazolam. Dose may be higher or lower than the claimed strength, and there may be other psychoactive compounds present such as quetiapine.

While drug testing websites such as WEDINOS are invaluable in highlighting trends in pill composition they are less helpful when considering tapers and withdrawal protocols – even if pills held by the client are submitted for analysis. The analysis doesn’t show the amount of each psychoactive compound in a pill, and without testing several pills from a batch, no certainty can be derived from testing a single pill.

This uncertainty about drug, dose and strength makes it impossible to accurately assess:

  • what level of substitute prescribing is required
  • how fast or slow a taper should be applied – some novel benzos have a very long duration of effect (100-200 hours) and so slower tapers may be required.

In lieu of accurate and rapid pill testing, the only practical way of substitute prescribing and tapering is to prescribe symptomatically, increasing dose and slowing withdrawal where there are clinical indicators of unmanageable withdrawal symptoms combined with careful assessment of the patient’s self-reported symptoms.

Escaping the trap

Services need to urgently develop new pathways and treatment protocols for people using benzodiazepines outside of clinical and prescribed settings. These need to include:

  • screening tools to assess for patterns and nature of
    benzo use
  • research into the extent of non-prescribed benzo use
    in the UK
  • protocols to test clients’ pills for content and potency
  • appropriate levels of substitute prescribing with tapers
  • rapid access for children experiencing anxiety to CAMHS to reduce self-medicating with benzos
  • staff training and training for GPs about addressing the use of prescribed benzos without driving people towards illicit markets. workshops have moved online during the current lockdown.

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