October 3, 2022

The rise of novel benzos in Australia

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The availability of ‘novel’ benzodiazepines (benzos), also called designer, synthetic or street benzos, is rapidly increasing in Australia. And so are the overdose deaths and harms caused by them.1,2

Unlike traditional benzos, that are produced, prescribed and regulated under strict clinical guidelines, novel benzos are like the Wild West – there’s no rules, and no way of knowing what you’re taking.

Between 2015-2021 there were 40 overdose deaths involving novel benzos in Australia.3

And in Victoria, there’s been a sharp increase in deaths from novel benzos - from one in 2018; to 10 in 2019; and, 28 in 2020.1

What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are mild tranquillisers prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, and to treat alcohol withdrawal and epilepsy.

Some people also use benzos non-medically to get ‘high’ or help with the comedown effects of drugs like amphetamines or cocaine.

Benzos have a high risk for drug overdose, dependency and interaction with other substances (especially other depressants like alcohol or opioids). Because of this, they’re controlled in Australia and available by prescription only.

So, how are novel benzos different to prescribed benzos?

Novel benzos can have similar effects to prescribed benzos but can be stronger and more unpredictable.

They’re categorised as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) – drugs designed to mimic the effects of prescription medications. Despite being illegal in Australia, they’re often sold online as ‘legal highs’ or ‘legal’ replacements for prescription medications.4

Novel benzos often have similar chemical structures to prescribed benzos.5

Some are developed by drug companies overseas but haven’t been tested or approved for sale in Australia.6

Others are manufactured in illegal factories overseas and sold on the black market.

Australia is seeing increased availability of novel benzos as people look for new drug experiences or street alternatives to controlled prescription medicines.7

And, the topic is gaining momentum on social media. There’s increased talk about benzos and their ‘legal’ alternatives, but many people aren’t aware of how risky they can be.

Why are novel benzos, like fake Xanax, dangerous?

Novel benzos pose a real public health risk.

Based on toxicology reports in Australia, the risks include:

  • high potency – the dosage can be higher than what’s written on the packet, making the effects unpredictable
  • unknown half-life (that’s how long drugs stay active in your system) – this can vary from 46 to 106+ hours, increasing your risk of overdose8
  • contaminated products – can contain different drugs (including opioids) and other substances and fillers
  • fakes and counterfeits – there have been numerous health alerts in Australia this year about fake Xanax, Kalma and Mylan.1,6,8

Keeping yourself safe by reducing risks

Novel benzos are available in different forms, including tablets, capsules, powder, blotters and e-liquids for vaping.8

It can be difficult to spot the difference between novel and prescribed benzos.

But if they’re cheap and bought on the street or online you should assume they’re novel benzos.

If you choose to use novel benzos, there are a few ways to lower your risk of harm:

  • start low and go slow – have a small amount then wait an hour or so before using more
  • check your benzos for fentanyl, which was found in fake benzos in Sydney in 2021.
  • if you’re in Canberra, you can also access Australia’s first fixed site drug checking service
  • take long breaks between using – tolerance and dependence to benzos can happen quickly.

Long-term use of any benzos (novel or prescribed) is dangerous because they’re highly addictive.

If you’re using benzos and want to cut down or stop, it’s best to seek medical help. Benzos can be difficult to withdraw from and you need to reduce your use slowly.

Talk to your GP or contact Reconnexion 1300-273-266 for confidential information, support or treatment for benzo withdrawal or dependency.

Or you can contact the National Drug and Alcohol Hotline 1800 250 015 to be connected to support services in your area.

  1. Coroners Court Victoria. Finding into Death without Inquest_COR 2021 002418.
  2. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).Trends in Overdose and Other Drug-Induced Deaths in Australia, 1997-2020.
  3. Darke S, Peacock A, Duflou J, Farrell M, Lappin J. Characteristics of fatal ‘novel’ benzodiazepine toxicity in Australia. Forensic Sci Int. 2022;331:111140.
  4. Orsolini L, Corkery JM, Chiappini S, Guirguis A, Vento A, De Berardis D, et al. ‘New/Designer Benzodiazepines’: An Analysis of the Literature and Psychonauts’ Trip Reports. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2020;18:809–37.
  5. Moustafa R, Tarbah F, Saeed H, Sharif S.Designer benzodiazepines versus prescription benzodiazepines: can structural relation predict the next step? Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2021;51:1–15.
  6. Greenblatt HK, Greenblatt DJ. Designer Benzodiazepines: A Review of Published Data and Public Health Significance. Clinical Pharmacology in Drug Development. 2019;8:266–9.
  7. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Understanding the synthetic drug market: the NPS factor.
  8. Insight webinar. Designer Benzodiazepines in Queensland: What’s in fake Xanax.

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