The background behind fake benzos in New Zealand
This is a new trend in New Zealand, as illegally used benzos here are usually diverted from legal sources. These counterfeit tablets are designed to imitate 2mg Pfizer produced, alprazolam-containing Xanax brand tablets, which are not legitimately dispensed in NZ.
KnowYourStuffNZ has tested two of these ‘Xanax bar’ tablets in Wellington. There was a possible presence of etizolam in the white ‘Xanax bar’, while the yellow ‘Xanax bar’ showed the presence of Parexyl. It’s possible this is the binder used.
It’s hard to know exactly how much etizolam or other adulterants are in the tablets, because the small amount of benzodiazepine in the tablet (0.5-2mg) compared to the actual size of the tablet (approx. 350mg) makes testing difficult.
Illegally-produced fake ‘Xanax’ pills containing other novel psychoactive substances is a growing trend internationally – the UK also recently issued alerts about it.
Etizolam is considered a novel psychoactive substance as it is not prescribed in most countries. In 2018 it was implicated in the death of 548 people in Scotland alone, accounting for more than 80% of ‘street benzodiazepine’ deaths.
Between April and June 2020, etizolam was the most common novel benzodiazepine detected by the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education in the United States. Novel benzodiazepines accounted for 59% of all novel psychoactive substance detections.
How to recognise symptoms of the drug
The effects of etizolam are similar to other benzodiazepines, and include:
- Sedation, sleepiness
- Feelings of relaxation
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
Most people who use benzos are unlikely to tell the difference between etizolam and alprazolam, or other traditional benzodiazepines.
How to reduce harm from the drug
No drug use is the safest drug use. Etizolam, like other benzos, is highly addictive. Many people report developing an etizolam tolerance, and experiencing craving and withdrawal symptoms.
As etizolam is a central nervous system depressant, it can be especially dangerous when mixed with other benzodiazepines, opioids and alcohol. This increases the risk of fatal overdoses.
These counterfeit pills may be an opening for fentanyl and other dangerous substances to enter the NZ market. In the US, fentanyl is the most common adulterant detected in etizolam and other benzodiazepine samples. It could also lead to the establishment of more dangerous novel benzos such as flualprazolam, which is 50 times more potent than alprazolam. This is the second most common novel benzodiazepine in the US, and has been linked to a number of deaths.
Always call an ambulance if someone:
- is unconscious;
- stops breathing;
- has a seizure;
- is extremely agitated for longer than 15 minutes;
- has chest pain or breathing difficulties for longer than 5 minutes.
The NZ Drug Foundation has more resources on how to reduce harm from benzos.
If you have heard of any reports of this drug, please let us know through the Report unusual effects page, the alert ID is N20/0005. All submissions are anonymous.
Are you concerned about your own drinking or drug taking? Reach out to the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You'll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential.
You can also chat to the Alcohol Drug Helpline team online through the website, or:
- Call the Māori Line on 0800 787 798 for advice and referral to kaupapa Māori services.
- Call the Pasifika Line on 0800 787 799 for advice and referral to services developed for Pacific people.
- Call the Youth Line on 0800 787 984 for advice and referral to services for young people.