US: ‘Fake Xanax’ Tied to Seizures, Coma; Naloxone Ineffective

Bromazolam is one of at least a dozen designer benzodiazepines, created in the lab, but not approved for any therapeutic use

Bromazolam, a street drug that has been detected with increasing frequency in the United States, has reportedly caused protracted seizures, myocardial injury, comas, and multiday intensive care stays in three individuals, new data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed.

The substance is one of at least a dozen designer benzodiazepines, created in the lab, but not approved for any therapeutic use. The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CFSRE) reported that bromazolam was first detected in 2016 in recreational drugs in Europe and subsequently appeared in the United States.

It is sold under names such as “XLI-268,” “Xanax,” “Fake Xanax,” and “Dope.” Bromazolam may be sold in tablet or powder form, or sometimes as gummies, and is often taken with fentanyl by users.

The CDC report, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), described three cases of “previously healthy young adults,” two 25-year-old men and a 20-year-old woman, who took tablets believing it was alprazolam, when it was actually bromazolam and were found unresponsive.

They could not be revived with naloxone and continued to be unresponsive upon arrival at the emergency department. One of the men was hypertensive (152/100 mmHg), tachycardic (heart rate of 124 beats per minute), and hyperthermic (101.7 °F [38.7 °C]) and experienced multiple generalized seizures. He was intubated and admitted to intensive care.

The other man also had an elevated temperature (100.4 °F) and was intubated and admitted to the ICU because of unresponsiveness and multiple generalized seizures.

The first man was intubated for 5 days and discharged after 11 days, while the second man was discharged on the fourth day with mild hearing difficulty.

The woman progressed to status epilepticus despite administration of multiple antiepileptic medications and was in a persistent coma. She was transferred to a second hospital after 11 days and was subsequently lost to follow-up.

Toxicology testing by the Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed the presence of bromazolam (range = 31.1-207 ng/mL), without the presence of fentanyl or any other opioid.

The CDC said that “the constellation of findings reported should prompt close involvement with public health officials and regional poison centers, given the more severe findings in these reported cases compared with those expected from routine benzodiazepine overdoses.” In addition, it noted that clinicians and first responders should “consider bromazolam in cases of patients requiring treatment for seizures, myocardial injury, or hyperthermia after illicit drug use.”

Surging Supply, Increased Warnings

In 2022, the CDC warned that the drug was surging in the United States, noting that as of mid-2022, bromazolam was identified in more than 250 toxicology cases submitted to NMS Labs, and that it had been identified in more than 190 toxicology samples tested at CFSRE.

In early 2021, only 1% of samples were positive for bromazolam. By mid-2022, 13% of samples were positive for bromazolam, and 75% of the bromazolam samples were positive for fentanyl.

The combination is sold on the street as benzo-dope.

Health authorities across the globe have been warning about the dangers of designer benzodiazepines, and bromazolam in particular. They’ve noted that the overdose reversal agent naloxone does not combat the effects of a benzodiazepine overdose.

In December 2022, the Canadian province of New Brunswick said that bromazolam had been detected in nine sudden death investigations, and that fentanyl was detected in some of those cases. The provincial government of the Northwest Territories warned in May 2023 that bromazolam had been detected in the region’s drug supply and cautioned against combining it with opioids.

The Indiana Department of Health notified the public, first responders, law enforcement, and clinicians in August 2023 that the drug was increasingly being detected in the state. In the first half of the year, 35 people who had overdosed in Indiana tested positive for bromazolam. The state did not test for the presence of bromazolam before 2023.

According to the MMWR, the law enforcement seizures in the United States of bromazolam increased from no more than three per year during 2016-2018 to 2142 in 2022 and 2913 in 2023.

Illinois has been an area of increased use. Bromazolam-involved deaths increased from 10 in 2021 to 51 in 2022, the CDC researchers reported.

The findings were published online on January 4, 2024, in the MMWR.

Alicia Ault is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA and You can find her on X (formerly known as Twitter): @aliciaault.

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