Drink and Drugs News DDN June 2020 - Page 6

EDUCATION THE 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 benzotype 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. 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 Initial benzo dependency was largely driven by massive overand long-term prescribing, something that has been addressed but remains an issue. 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 6 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • JUNE 2020 WWW.DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS.COM