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Benzodiazepines, benzos, trip killers, Xannies: whatever you call them, it’s important to know that these drugs are not all made equally. In fact, a benzo you get from a doctor is unlikely to be the same as one you might buy online, off a mate or from a dealer. 

Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs that were made to treat mental health disorders like anxiety. They can help calm people down, improve sleep and cause physical and mental feelings of relaxation. They can also make people intensely drowsy, uncoordinated, and confused.

‘Novel benzos’ are benzodiazepines that are newly made, generally not for medical purposes. There are new ones being developed constantly and sold on the illicit market. Often these are made to mimic the effects and even the look of benzos you’d get from a pharmacy. But novel benzos can have much lower active doses, stronger effects, and more unpleasant side effects than benzos like alprazolam or diazepam prescribed by a doctor.  

So, if you are buying benzos, what’s the go? Here are some things to keep in mind:
  

  1. If it’s not from a doctor, it’s probably not a ‘real’ benzo. A Xanax bar you bought off a dealer is unlikely to be alprazolam. In fact, most of the ‘Xanax’ pills we see in New Zealand are actually other, much stronger benzos like etizolam, flubromazolam and flualprazolam. It’s a pretty good bet to assume it’s something stronger than what it was sold as and dose accordingly.  

  2. There can be other stuff in your counterfeit benzos too. Another worry is that while your benzo might be a completely different benzo to what you thought it was, it can also have lots of other unexpected things in it too. Counterfeit benzos can have fillers like caffeine and MSM, and can also contain other drugs like lidocaine, ketamine, Aspirin and amphetamines (source: drugsdata.org). Benzos in many places overseas can also contain fentanyl or its analogues.
     
  3. Your benzo might not be as good a ‘trip killer’ as you think. Some people use benzos if they are experiencing a bad trip from a hallucinogenic drug such as LSD, mushrooms (psilocybin) or DMT. The issue with using counterfeit benzos for this purpose is that unlike a prescription benzo, it can be very hard to know how strong it is, what else is in it or how you should dose it. People often end up taking a much larger dose than expected and then become very out-of-it, confused and groggy - which is one way to guarantee an early ending to your night, or worse. If there are other drugs in your counterfeit benzo that don’t mix well with the hallucinogenic you’ve taken, this can also lead to unpleasant effects or a potentially dangerous interaction.  

We know that despite the risks, some people still choose to use counterfeit benzos. We’re all about harm reduction here, so we’ve put together some handy tips to keep you safer: 

  1. Be conservative with your dosing. Not all pills sold as benzos contain the same amount of actual drug, even the pharmaceutical ones. So, it’s best to take a small amount to start and wait at least an hour before using more. Remember, with counterfeit benzos the ‘active ingredient’ is not dispersed evenly across the pill - one half could have all the benzo in it, and the other half could be all filler, so even splitting the pill in half doesn’t guarantee you are only taking a half dose. You could crush and weigh the pill to distribute the drug evenly. If you are used to taking one type of pharmaceutical benzo and are switching to another, consider using the benzo dosage converter to make sure you are using the right dose.  

  2. Even though it’s hard to test benzos, it’s still a good idea to bring them to a drug checking clinic. Another tricky thing with benzos is that because the active ingredient in a pharmaceutical benzo pill is often below 5%, the machine used for drug checking (an FTIR spectrometer) might only pick up on the binder or filler. However, with counterfeit benzos there may be more active ingredient than pharmaceuticals, so it is still worth bringing them into a drug checking clinic. They also may be able to tell you what kind of filler is in it, whether there are other drugs in it, and do a fentanyl test on your benzo as well.
     
  3. Speaking of fentanyl, test your benzos at home with a fentanyl test strip. Fentanyl in benzos has been an issue that is getting worse in places like North America for several years. And in December 2021, Australian drug checking provider Dancewize New South Wales reported a positive fentanyl test for fake Xanax (which is much too close to New Zealand for our liking!). You can buy fentanyl test strips at The Hempstore, in store or online. 

  4. Take long breaks between using benzos. Tolerance and dependence can develop quickly with benzos, and potentially even more quickly with stronger, counterfeit benzos compared to pharmaceutical ones. Of course, how quickly this happens can depend on lots of individual factors; but it is important to know that benzodiazepine withdrawal can be very challenging, and in some cases, quite dangerous. Take long breaks between using benzos and monitor your level of tolerance and your dose. If you have been using benzos regularly, it can be dangerous to just stop cold turkey. Seek medical advice for how to do this safely and see the 'Making changes’ section here on The Level for more tips.

  5. Sometimes it’s important to talk with your doctor. Lastly, but certainly not least, we know that some people use counterfeit benzos to self-treat conditions like anxiety, panic attacks or insomnia. This can be a tricky situation, but self-medicating with counterfeit drugs can be dangerous, especially as different batches can be different benzos altogether. It can sound scary but having an open conversation about your use with your doctor can help them to find a treatment that can work for you long-term. You have the right to be treated without judgement, and you won’t be in trouble with the law for telling a doctor about your use.  

Whatever you do, it’s important to remember that the New Zealand illicit drug market changes quickly!  Stay up to date with what is happening with dangerous drugs in New Zealand by following us here on The Level, and signing up to High Alert.  

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