If you’re from the UK or US, you’ve most likely heard of benzodiazepines, or ‘benzos’ for short. They’re commonly used as a form of tranquilliser in medical fields for treating anxiety and sleep disorders. When prescribed by medical professionals and taken correctly, benzos such as diazepam can be lifesavers for individuals experiencing anxiety attacks or dealing with heightened levels of general stress.
There is, however, a dark side to these drugs – as tends to be the case with many substances targeted by the war on drugs. ‘Street benzos’ which are usually derived from non-medical sources have risen in popularity in recent years. The unregulated nature of these drugs – combined with government policy that often seeks to punish users instead of helping those suffering from addiction – has created a situation whereby recreational users of the drug can face serious health risks.
You might remember the panic in America a few years ago regarding fentanyl-laced Xanax, which led to many cases of overdose and fatalities. This major problem was exacerbated by the ease by which this type of drug could be accessed illicitly, as well as having a population that was increasingly being prescribed the drug for various medical conditions. What you may not be aware of, however, is that the UK suffers from the same combination of factors when it comes to illegal benzo use.
Increased use in recent years has warranted health warnings regarding the drug all across the UK. Far from being an issue restricted to certain counties, benzo addiction and the subsequent risks to health it incurs has become a nationwide problem. Worryingly little is being done to combat this, with the general assumption seeming to be that issues relating to benzo addiction are only prevalent in cities with a lively drug culture. Benzo misuse and addiction does not only take place in these underground scenes where recreational drug use is part of the norm, but also in homes and hospitals across the nation. Owing to this, benzo consumption has rapidly become a prolific problem within the UK.
Benzos aren’t used solely by people with diagnosed anxiety. As a result of long waiting lists to receive support in regions across the UK, individuals with mental health issues often self-medicate with benzos. Heightened demand for these services has come as another side effect of the pandemic. Intermittent lockdowns over the course of two years have increased feelings of loneliness and depression amongst young people, exacerbating mental health issues. Each of these factors have led to a spike in unregulated use across the UK.
On top of this, illicit benzos in this country are incredibly cheap, with diazepam being sold for as little as a pound per pill via the dark web, WhatsApp group chats, and dealers. They are also easy to access, making them popular amongst students on nights out. This leads to concerns regarding poly-drug use, which poses a serious health risk to those under the influence.
Combining alcohol and benzos could be fatal: risk of asphyxiation, dehydration, comas, and heart attacks are potential side effects. When you consider that many of the worst affected areas of the country for benzo misuse (e.g. Brighton) are student cities, the levels of potential harm towards students on a night out are high if they take the drug.
Despite all these worrying factors, there is still a lack of UK-focused research in academic spheres, and a disconnect between policy-makers and those who take drugs. There also isn’t sufficient knowledge about the long-term effects of benzo use. As recreational benzo use is illicit, it is therefore difficult to have accurate ONS statistics capturing the scale of consumption. The relevant quotes found in NGO or local council reports rarely include individuals who take drugs, only from those in a position of authority. All of these factors lead to a pervasive literature gap. That’s why I joined the Benzo Research Project, a grassroots platform to listen to previously silent voices.
This project is a student-led initiative to investigate the lived experiences of recreational benzo consumption amongst young people (18-25) across the UK. We aim to collect anonymous testimonies over the course of a few months, providing us with an insight into the lived effects of benzo usage.
Our prompt questions to those submitting testimonies relate to their experiences taking benzos, interactions with local NGO outreach and services, the role of secondary and further educational institutions, and music subcultures such as UK garage or drum and bass. These are all factors that could provide unique insights into the UK’s growing benzo culture. This data will be analysed by our research team and published as a report, including policy suggestions to local NGOs, council authorities, and the government.
Beyond collecting testimonies, we also have a dedicated social media team who aim to connect with young people and disseminate harm reduction information. We will hopefully be conducting drug education workshops for young people in the city during summer, as well as continuing to develop partnerships with stakeholders. On this front, we are currently working on producing harm reduction leaflets for university students with the social enterprise Drugs and Me. We hope that this information can contribute to keeping drug users safe and to avoid drug-related injuries. You can find our social media handles below.
There is a serious problem regarding benzos in the UK, which can impact the quality of life young people have when exposed to the long-term effects of the drug. Despite this, we have yet to see major policy reforms, or any serious actions taken to remedy the situation. In fact, the government seems more determined than ever to treat drug users as criminals rather than providing them with the necessary psychological, social, and economic support. Young people have simply not got a voice in this matter – our project looks to rectify this, by giving young people a platform to voice their feelings about benzos and their experiences with it.
Striving for change is an uphill struggle and one that won’t be over quickly, which is why projects like ours are so important. What this project hopes to achieve – at the very minimum – is to provide a platform for people to share their experiences, and to create a report on the findings to be used by stakeholders to gauge and remedy this. With the help of like-minded organisations, everyone on the project, and research advisors in the medical field, I am confident that we can achieve this goal.
Whilst the Benzo Research Project does not condone the use of illegal drugs or the misuse of prescription drugs, we recognise that some people may use drugs during their lifetimes. We hope that the information provided here will help readers to be better informed about their/ their friends drug use, the risks posed, how these can be mitigated, and where to seek help for harmful drug use.
This piece was written by Ross Webster from the Benzo Research Project team, edited by Ray Jerram, Monica Richards and Ivan Ezquerra Romano.
LinkedIn: Benzo Research Project