[Sept. 2016 Features] Xanax permeates Staples student body

By Molly Liebergall ’17 Web Managing Editor

*Names have been changed

The introduction

Sarah* hesitated before accepting the white tablet offered to her.  Standing there in a friend’s apartment, with Kygo playing in the background and crowd chatter fading to white noise, she broke off one quarter of a two milligram bar of Xanax and palmed the small, “X”-labeled drug, pausing before swallowing it like a pill and chasing with Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey — straight from the bottle.

“Yeah, I don’t remember that night,” Sarah said.  She furrowed her eyebrows and turned to her friend, Emma*, seeking restoration of the memories that had escaped her.  “What am I usually like?” she asked.  “Am I happy?”

Emma looked up and contemplated Xanax, the drug responsible for the numerous nights that Sarah has “blacked out” or not remembered.

“I don’t think anyone I’ve ever watched take it has been in a good place,” she said.  “Your worst nights have been when you combine Xanax and alcohol.”

Because of the increasing popularity of this drug, Sarah is not alone in her experience. In a recent anonymous survey sent to the entire student body, almost 10 percent of 312 respondents reported taking Xanax recreationally, while 40 percent know someone who does.


What is it?

Xanax, an antianxiety, is the brand name of alprazolam, a benzodiazepine belonging to a group of medicines known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants.  When used properly, it can help those suffering from anxiety with their symptoms.  When used improperly, however, the repercussions can range anywhere from drug-induced stupor to death.

“You can have respiratory depression and die,” Village Pediatrics physician, Dr. Carol Nicole Gorman, said.  “You are so numb that you don’t even realize that your respiratory rate is going down.”

The numbness Gorman refers to is a perversion of Xanax’s intended effect, which is to relieve the user of the symptoms of anxiety disorder: shakiness, accelerated heart rate and fatigue, to name a few.  However, when non-prescribed users ingest the drug in a social setting, devoid of precautions and guidelines, Xanax transforms from a “life changing” medication, as described by Thomas*, a prescribed user, into a life-threatening narcotic.

“You’re completely depressing your central nervous system, so you’re slowing down your breathing,” health teacher Nicole Comerford said.  “Your blood flow is going to slow down; everything could potentially stop.”

Despite the fact that Thomas’ severe anxiety has legally obtained him a prescription for Xanax, many of his other interactions with drugs are illicit.

Before seeing a doctor, he self-diagnosed and self-medicated with his dad’s and grandparents’ Xanax “scripts” that otherwise went mostly unused, and such actions are not unique only to him.

Westport child psychiatrist Dr. Gwen Lopez Cohen wondered if teens without prescriptions might access Xanax through their parents, since many doctors and psychiatrists actually try to avoid prescribing it to teens, “unless a patient has tried and failed other benzodiazepines and is not yet stable on long standing anti-anxiety medication,” Cohen said.


Getting it

Colonial Druggist & Surgical Supplies pharmacist Russell Levine has privately owned his store, located on a main stretch of the Post Road, since Sept. 15, 1968, and has witnessed countless drug trends throughout the years, including the abuse of pills like Xanax.

At the pharmacy, 250 to 300 prescriptions are filled every day and 10 to 15 of those prescriptions are often Xanax intended for adults, according to Levine.  The facts that Xanax is most often prescribed to adults while Xanax abuse has increased in teens led Levine to conclude that teens are stealing the drugs from their families.

“The prescription is made out to one of the parents or someone in the family, and if it’s in the medicine cabinet, it’s not locked up,” Levine said.  “If someone wants to experiment, it’s available.”

As a prescribed user and someone who has received specific pharmaceutical instruction from a medical professional, Thomas is aware of the health risks accompanying recreational Xanax use.  However, as a self-proclaimed drug dealer motivated by money, Thomas still sold customers the drug.

Among his variety of narcotics, both prescription and otherwise, Thomas used to sell some of his “stockpile” of nearly 100 alprazolam pills for five dollars per milligram.  However, after one of his previous customers was hospitalized for combining Xanax and alcohol, Thomas admits to only selling rarely now.

“I realized people could die from what I’m selling, and I can’t control how they’re gonna use it,” Thomas said.

Nevertheless, between 2002 and 2016, the number of Xanax prescriptions written per year jumped by almost 10 million in the United States, a trend Comerford believes is “unfortunately” responsible for more “readily available” prescriptions to abuse.

“It’s going to be whatever’s out there, whatever’s in people’s medicine cabinets that they can easily get,” she said.

And even if Xanax is not accessible at home, Sarah and Emma acknowledged that the drug is effortlessly obtainable in the Staples social scene.  Several months ago, for example, the friends attended a party where a miscommunication resulted in dozens of people unknowingly ingesting jungle juice — mixes of different alcohol and chasers like Gatorade — spiked with Xanax.

“I walked into the kitchen and they were crushing up [pills] and putting it in the cooler,” Sarah recalled.  Although the orange Gatorade jug being filled was supposed to remain upstairs and away from the party, one attendee mistook the contents for regular alcohol and toted it to the center of the festivities.

“I remember suddenly looking around and I was like, ‘Why is that here? Why is everyone drinking that?” Sarah said.

“I remember freaking out,” Emma added.  “Jungle juice in general is something to be wary of, but once you start mixing drugs…if you get that much put in your drink you can blackout.”

For Levine, after almost 50 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Xanax abuse is another dangerous tendency in a long line of dangerous tendencies.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, and you see different trends of drug experimentation,” he said.  “Drugs are a problem, it’s as simple as that.  If they’re used correctly, it’s fine, but if they’re not used correctly, then we have an issue.