Physicians with expertise in addictions are hearing reports of widespread increases of youth taking benzodiazepines or “benzos” in Halifax.
“My colleagues who work particularly in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry who work in addictions in Halifax are talking about an epidemic of benzodiazepine use among youth,” said Dr. Sam Hickcox said, the physician lead for addictions medicine with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
“Particularly, one of the benzodiazepines which is called Xanax and that that’s being used with great frequency.”
This fall, there were reports of fake Xanax pills possibly containing fentanyl circulating through Nova Scotia.
According to medical professionals like Hickcox, benzodiazepines are a class of drugs primarily used to treat anxiety disorders and they’ve been overprescribed for decades in the province.
“It’s pretty clear that in Nova Scotia, we prescribe more benzodiazepines per capita than most other jurisdictions in Canada and that’s not because we have more people with more diagnosed anxiety disorders, that really has just to do with the tradition of prescribing,” he said.
One Halifax pharmacist says benzodiazepines can not only be problematic for substance misuse, but they can also be deadly when not tapered off of properly.
“If you’ve been on them for a while, coming off of them abruptly, there’s actually a risk of death because of seizures,” Peter Jorna, the owner of Scotia Pharmacy, said.
WATCH: Warning about sedative use among seniors
Jorna says evidence also points to benzodiazepines leading to potentially lethal falls in elderly people due to the sedative effects of the drugs.
“It’s particularly a problem in the elderly. The evidence shows that more falls happen in elderly people who are on benzodiazepines, and when you’re elderly and you fall and break your hip, it’s a good chance that that could be lethal,” he said.
According to data from the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner’s Office, drug overdose deaths often involve more than one drug contributing to the fatality.
Data from 2011 through to October 1, 2018, show 442 people died as a result of opioid toxicity, the majority of those deaths were due to multi-drug toxicity.
In the cause of death statement, 246 of the 442 deaths had one or more benzodiazepines also listed.
Hickcox says short-term use of benzodiazepines can be effective at treating anxiety disorders but any long-term use can lead to negative or even deadly consequences.
“They take away an individual’s ability to learn how to tolerate and manage their anxiety and find ways to live with anxiety and solve the problems in their life that may be contributing to anxiety. In the same way that using opioids or using alcohol can take away the person’s distress but in the end, erode their ability to really manage their life,” he said.
WATCH BELOW: Internal medicine resident says patients reporting fake Xanax pills linked to overdoses.