How COVID-19 Is Driving Risks in the Illicit Benzodiazepines Market

The life conditions imposed by the pandemic are leading many Americans to seek mental health treatment for the first time. As a result, prescribing of many psychiatric medications has risen by double digits in 2020.

According to research conducted by Express Scripts and cited by Harvard Medical School, prescriptions for medications to treat depression, anxiety or insomnia increased by 21 percent between February 16 and March 15, peaking in the final week of that period as the coronavirus accelerated. During that week, 78 percent of all prescriptions filled in these categories were new prescriptions.

Prescriptions of anti-anxiety medications rose the most—by 34 percent over the month studied, with a week-on-week increase of almost 18 percent in that final week.

These figures—and it’s highly likely that subsequent months saw further surges—reflect widespread mental health issues, driven by worries about the coronavirus, experiences of it, personal isolation and financial struggles.

Benzodiazepines—a category including drugs like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Valium—are highly effective at treating anxiety. Their use in drug combinations—not alone—has been a critical factor in the overdose crisis.

In 2016, for example, just about 80 percent of deaths involving a synthetic opioid also involved another drug (including alcohol). Benzos and opioids are a particularly risky combination: The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that over 30 percent of opioid-involved deaths also involve benzodiazepines. In this reality, the term “overdose,” with its implication of too much of a single drug, is arguably a misleading one.

“Benzodiazepine and opioid combinations have become of important concern due to addictive [and] depressant effects which can lead to death,” Alex Krotulski, a research scientist at the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CFSRE), told Filter.

The arrival in US illicit drug markets of fentanyl, with its increased potency when compared to heroin, exacerbated a problem that already existed. During the first fentanyl wave in 2006—when more than 1,200 people died in half a dozen major cities from a batch of “china white” traced to an industrial facility near Mexico City—fully 89 percent of fatalities in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania involved a mix of illicit drugs and legal ones—primarily benzodiazepines. Similar trends have continued as deaths increased during the last six years.

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