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We're turning into a XANNIE STATE; PROBE REVEALS DEADLY DRUG CRAZE THAT'S RUINING LIVES; 200% rise in treatment for addicts as 204 die in UK; Cops call for social media giants to ban evil dealers; Chill out pill glamorised by rappers sells for 70p; EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: Amy Sharpe and Dan Warbuton

DRUG pushers are ruthlessly tapping into a deadly craze for anti-anxiety pills sweeping the nation, warns a top cop.

Demand for Xanax has soared in young people in Britain, fuelled by a desire for cheap "chill pills" which are linked to glamorous music stars.

But the highly-addictive tablets are potentially lethal when mixed with other drugs and booze. Drugs charities have connected Xanax, only available privately on prescription here, to 204 British deaths since 2015.

Internet dealers are importing them in batches of 5,000 at a time and brazenly selling them for as little as 70p a pop via adverts on sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

Nicknamed Xannies, the popularity of the sedatives has rocketed after being mentioned in songs by rappers such as Grammy-winner Drake.

Golfer Tiger Woods had the drug in his system, along with multiple others, when he was arrested for driving under the influence in May 2017, said police.

And in a documentary last year pop star Demi Lovato said she almost died of an overdose after having "popped a few Xanax bars" with cocaine in 2012 when her heart started racing. Here, senior police officers and MPs blasted internet giants for failing to tackle the online trade.

Drug cops are struggling to tackle criminals profiting from the trade of the "zombie" drug, with one pusher bragging: "I'll never get caught".

Hardyal Dhindsa, of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said: "One death is too many. We need to look at why those deaths are happening. Police forces will challenge illegal activity but we need the same focus put on how internet sites are able to offer these illicit and non-prescribed drugs.

"I don't think the internet firms have done enough in the past. They are waking up to the fact they have a responsibility. More needs to be done."

Last year health group UK Addiction Treatment said it had seen a 200 per cent rise in people being admitted to treatment centres and rehab solely for Xanax addiction. More than half of these were under 24. And Office for National Statistics figures show from 2012 to 2016 there was a 43 per cent rise in deaths related to the benzodiazepines, the type of drug covering Xanax.

It took the Sunday People less than a minute's search on the net to find a supplier with a British mobile number. He posted a video showing his goods and vowed "next day delivery". And one, posing as a pharmacist, did not mention the need for a prescription. He wrote: "Delivery is confidential, sealed and delivered to your home or preferred address."

He offered diazepam, Valium, Xanax and other pain killer and "sex pills".

Labour MP Bambos Charalambous said: "This is a big issue - young people are self medicating for a whole series of reasons. This is easy to get hold of on the dark web and people are buying fake Xanax." He said it was alarming they are openly sold on various sites.

In the US, genuine versions of Xanax - known as Alprazolam - are widely prescribed but its misuse made headlines. Drake, on Travis Scott's Sicko Mode, rapped about a flight: "I did half a Xan, thirteen hours 'til I land."

Budding New York rapper Lil Peep died at 21 in November 2017 after an accidental overdose of Xanax and the opiate painkiller Fentanyl. In a video posted hours before his body was found on a tour bus, he had recorded himself taking six "xannies".

Now UK charity chiefs claim "pop culture is shaping the drug market". Nick Hickmott, of support charity Addaction, said: "Two years ago benzos weren't really being used here.

"Then American hip-hop artists started talking about it and it got more widespread.

"This generation of people are aware of mental health and for those who suffer with anxiety it can seem a quick-fix, cheap solution to that problem." Xanax is prescribed to manage anxiety and panic disorders but many Brits risk their lives by using it as a party drug.

The tranquilliser produces dopamine in the brain - the chemical associated with feelings of pleasure. But some of the pills sold online are fake. And partygoers use them to relax, even though they are made in dodgy backstreet labs. Mr Hickmott said: "It's all fake, illegally sourced and unregulated. With Xanax it only has to look the part - the contents can differ. Some so-called manufacturers making Alprazolam in a home garage lab using cement mixers and cheap pill presses.

"One could have a 100mg dose while the next could contain 600mg. There is no regulation and people are buying from strangers who will face no repercussions for selling a bad batch."

Since 2016 counterfeit Xanax bars with a street value of more than PS1million have been seized a UK ports and airports.

Supplying the Class C drug, carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years plus an unlimited fine. Possession can result in two years in jail and a fine.

But dealers do not fear the law and ship in dodgy tablets from the Far East. A London-based dealer who peddles drugs with adverts on Snapchat and Instagram claimed Xanax had overtaken ecstasy and cannabis sales.

Sam, not his real name, buys them from Asia for 20p per pill and sells them for 70p a go, making up to PS4,000 per batch. He said: "It's party stuff. I ain't hurting no one. It's high-quality, proper designer s**t." But the human cost of dealing unregulated Xanax bars can be seen in dozens of deaths.

Last year rap fan Kieran Shepherd, 17, suffered a fatal overdose at his girlfriend's Chesterfield flat in Derbyshire after taking more than 10 Xanax bars in a single day.

And student Kyle Remzi, 20, died after taking illegally-obtained, fake Xanax in January 2017. There were also traces of MDMA [ecstasy] and alcohol in his blood. Experts say the UK accounts for almost a third of all sedatives sold on the dark web.

University of Kent and King's College London academics found by 2016 about 12 per cent of the total of all drugs sold via the dark net in the UK were sedatives.

Dr Jack Cunliffe, reasearch co-author, said: "I'd estimate that figure has now multiplied, given the speed of increase in use of psychiatric prescription drugs in the UK is faster than anywhere else."

When the Sunday People handed the evidence to Instagram and Facebook they confirmed the accounts had been removed for violating policies around the sale of regulated goods.

feedback@people.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

HEART RACED: Demi Lovato admitted popping Xanax

ARREST: Woods

DRUG REFERENCE: Rapper Drake named Xanax in song

FEARS: Hardyal Dhindsa
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Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 24, 2019
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