Sedatives reportedly sold and abused by University of Minnesota wrestlers might not be generating as much alarm locally and nationally as potent opioid painkillers, but the latest data show they are a fast-rising cause of overdoses and deaths.

Xanax, or alprazolam, is the 10th-most prescribed drug in Minnesota and the second-most prescribed drug that is seized by law enforcement in drug stings, according to an April Drug Abuse Trends report for the Twin Cities.

Normally prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders, Xanax is a popular drug to abuse because it produces intoxicating effects similar to alcohol. One U wrestler told the Star Tribune on the condition of anonymity that teammates possessed 2,500 pills that they sold for $5 to $8 per pill, but they also took the pills on their own followed by Red Bull energy drinks, presumably to counteract the extreme drowsiness caused by Xanax.

Drug experts hypothesized that wrestlers might prefer the drug because it produces drunkenness without the weight gain of alcohol and that college students might use it to calm down after taking stimulants as study aides or weight suppressants.

“You always hear young people in college are experiencing high anxiety … and that it’s fairly easy for them to get ADHD medications, which they abuse because they cause alertness and enhance studying,” said Carol Falkowski, author of the drug trends report and a former director of state drug abuse prevention programs. “Depending on how prevalent that is, maybe that same group then needs something just to get to sleep. At some point, you have to sleep.”

While not as addictive as opioids, Xanax can become habitual, and abusers often need larger and larger doses. A risk of excessive Xanax use is that it relaxes the respiratory system to a point that an abuser stops breathing.

Deaths primarily caused by benzodiazepines, the class of sedating drugs including Xanax, spiked from eight in 2000 to 71 last year, according to a new Minnesota Department of Health report on poisoning deaths in the state.

Nationally, a federal report in 2014 showed a doubling of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of Xanax — from 57,419 in 2005 to 123,744 in 2011. Half of ER visits involved drug users age 18 to 34, and 81 percent involved use of Xanax in combination with alcohol or other drugs.

“Often you can have a safe level of benzodiazepines and a safe level of alcohol use separately, but when you combine the two you can have an overdose potential,” said Dana Farley, an alcohol and drug policy specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Reports also show that most misused Xanax is obtained from family medicine cabinets, given how frequently it is prescribed. Xanax is in a less restrictive federal regulatory class than opioids, so a doctor can order up to five refills in six months without seeing a patient for a follow-up visit, said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

Exactly how the U wrestlers obtained Xanax in such large quantities is unclear. The wrestler who spoke to the Star Tribune said the pills were mailed by a former teammate.

Xanax is widely available online without a prescription, though Wiberg said it is a crime in Minnesota to prescribe a controlled substance without an in-person exam. And selling Xanax without proper prescribing and dispensing procedures is a felony.

Last week, a 20-year-old Spring Park man was charged with possessing over 1,000 pills of a form of Xanax at his Minneapolis apartment, along with small amounts of cocaine and marijuana, according to a court document.

In an interview with police, the man admitted he got the pills from “the deep web,” the document said. He was charged with felony fifth-degree intent to sell a controlled substance. The maximum penalty listed was five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

The alleged drug ring involving U wrestlers does not seem to reflect a broader problem on campus, at least based on patients coming to the Boynton Student Health Service.

Treatment there for Xanax misuse is rare and more commonly involves students seeking study aids rather than recreational highs, said Dr. Gary Christenson, Boynton’s chief medical officer. Some students buy what they believe to be Xanax online but receive something else entirely, he added.

Boynton prescribes Xanax, but usually in small doses and for management of acute panic attacks rather than long-term anxiety, Christenson said.

“We are concerned about the potential addictive qualities,” he said, “and also the fact of it being a short-acting agent. It has some increased risk for significant withdrawal symptoms.”

 

Staff writers Joe Christensen, Amelia Rayno and David Chanen contributed to this report.