Anti-anxiety pills landing more teens in region hospitals

There has been a surge in the number of Victoria teens showing up at emergency departments in recent months after taking what they believed to be the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, health officials say.

“We are seeing more frequent presentations of young people who are over-sedated or who have overdosed on Xanax,” said Dr. Chris Morrow, a clinical division head and emergency doctor at Royal Jubilee and Victoria General Hospitals.

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“They usually come by ambulance as an overdose or have come struggling with some other issue and this comes up,” Morrow said. “They appear profoundly sedated, sleep or comatose. … When [Xanax is] used with alcohol, they could overdose and die.”

Island Health said warning signs of Xanax abuse include drowsiness, periods of extended sleep, light-headedness, difficult concentrating, memory problems, feelings of elation, nausea and headache.

Morrow said it’s not clear whether the teens have taken Xanax or a counterfeit bought on the street. Ativan, or lorazepam, is more commonly prescribed than Xanax in Canada, he said. Youth are often reluctant to say where they got a drug, but some have said they got it from friends or purchased it on the “dark web.”

Street drugs are also dangerous because they could have anything in them, including the deadly opioid fentanyl, Morrow said. A downtown Victoria pharmacy, STS Pain on Cormorant Street, offers free testing of street drugs and found fentanyl in Xanax and Ritalin pills in June.

Island Health said Xanax can be highly addictive and that it is known to slow down respiratory rates. That alone is dangerous, but can lead to serious injury, coma and death when combined with alcohol.

Morrow said teens who have used it without a prescription are often referred to addictions services right away.

“The key will be parents being aware and talking with their kids,” he said.

A Victoria mother contacted the Times Colonist this week after her son and a friend overdosed on what they believed to be Xanax.

She took her 16-year-old son to the emergency room over the weekend after she had difficulty waking him up and found he was acting unusually.

“I knew my son was on something strange. He was slurring and his limbs were moving like he was drunk but it wasn’t that and it wasn’t pot,” said the woman, who did not want to use her name to protect her son’s privacy. She heard about the symptoms of Xanax use from a friend and spoke to her son about it. He told her he took it twice.

“I don’t know where they got it, and that scares the hell out of me. It’s terrifying,” said the woman, who learned at the hospital about the increasing problem of the drug. “I was told it’s as addictive as heroin.”

Central Saanich police Cpl. Pat Bryant with the Mobile Youth Services Team said Xanax is an issue across the region, with youth taking it and going to school.

“It’s definitely a drug of choice right now for some kids,” said Bryant, who liaises with parents, schools and youth services from Sidney to Sooke. He said the pills are $1 to $2 each and can be easily ingested — as opposed to other drugs that are smoked or injected.

Victoria police drug expert Staff Sgt. Conor King said he has had reports of Xanax use at local schools from liaison officers. “There is a surge of Xanax availability in schools and at this level it’s fairly new,” said King, adding: “Unfortunately, we always see some form of drugs in schools. It was MDMA, or ecstasy.”

The Xanax is likely counterfeit, he said. He found research from Health Canada and the U.S. showing fake Xanax pills have tested positive for cannabinoids and fentanyl.

King said counterfeit Xanax are likely made by crime organizations, using the same pill presses that are used to produce other drugs. These operations could be anywhere. “There have been seizures,” he said. “Usually, when we see a large amount of pills, they are counterfeit.”

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