Deaths attributed to a combination of anti-anxiety medication and opioid painkillers are rising rapidly in the Chicago area, claiming hundreds of lives in 2017.
Officials in Cook County, Ill., say addiction to benzodiazepine medications like Xanax, Valium and Klonopin appear to be increasing in the region. Benzodiazepines are a class of medication commonly prescribed to treat anxiety conditions that can slow a user’s breathing, particularly when mixed with an opioid medication. A youth rehab network run by Gateway says roughly one in four patients now have abuse problems with a benzodiazepine, up from only one in 10 in 2013, reports the Chicago Tribune.
Cook County Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar says the deadly mixture of prescription opioids and medications like Xanax are causing deaths attributed to benzodiazepines to spike at an alarming pace. Deaths from the anti-anxiety drugs have tripled in the region since 2015, claiming 333 lives last year.
“This has taken the place of ecstasy in the party culture for some people,” Karen Wolownik Albert, executive director of Gateway in Lake County, told the Chicago Tribune. “Because it’s a prescription drug, people can rationalize it. It doesn’t fit into people’s concept of what drug abuse looks like.”
Officials warn that many people who are prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines may be unaware of the danger the medications pose when taken together.
Federal drug agents also recently issued a warning about rising overdose deaths, particularly among young adults and teens, from counterfeit Xanax pills cut with the potent opioid fentanyl.
Officials say the anti-anxiety medications, which are often glorified in music and on social media, are increasing in popularity among teens and young adults in recent years. Rapper Lil Peep, who often rapped about Xanax, fatally overdosed on a combination of Xanax and fentanyl before a November concert in Arizona.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine which is pouring into the country across the border and through the mail from China. The substance is fueling more overdose deaths as drug dealers increasingly cut the substance into heroin, cocaine and pill supplies to maximize profits.
Fentanyl overtook heroin as the deadliest substance in the U.S. in 2016, claiming 19,413 lives, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationally, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016.
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