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I have been doing Valium since the age of 16. They were called “blueberries” where I was from, and there were so many in our high school in Nova Scotia, the local news even covered it.
I was always filled with anxiety, often having mini panic attacks, and I couldn’t believe what one of these “blueberries” would do to take that acute anxiety away, let alone five or 10. All a sudden I was actually comfortable speaking my mind, or talking to the girl I had a crush on all year. I felt like without anxiety, I could be me.
I started to hang around a different crowd. I used my lunch money to do blueberries daily. A close friend of mine and I would sometimes pick up 50 or 100; in those days, it felt like a ton. Everyone wanted blueberries and mostly everyone got them. I often wondered how there were enough to go around, but there were.
I have been on some type of benzodiazepine, either prescribed or not, ever since my teens.
At 19, after three years of using Valium, I was finally prescribed it. I have been on some type of benzodiazepine, either prescribed or not, ever since. I am still actually on prescribed Valium. My dose, currently only 5 mg, is nothing compared to the 50 mg or 100 mg we were eating at once as teenagers, but it still helps: Benzos are simply the only kind of drug that takes my anxiety away.
I have seen many different waves of benzos on the street. Where I live, “blueberries” were followed by clonazepam, known as “clazzys.” Ativan, Lectopam and (rarer and stronger) oxazepam—or at least, pills described as being those drugs—have all dominated the local market at one time or another.
Not “Xanax,” though—that always seemed more of a US trend. I think I knew one person with a legit script of alprazolam (the generic of which Xanax is a brand-name), and what they got from the pharmacy wasn’t the characteristic bars, more little pink “footballs.”
Not “Xanax,” that is, until fake bars started popping up in Atlantic Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic—with reports of fentanyl-laced “Xanax” likely connected with widespread disruptions to normal illicit-drug supply chains.
I overdosed back in the summer on a mix of drugs, including fentanyl. I wrote about it for Filter because I needed to get it out, and figured it might help others. The so-called “Xanax” I took may not have been the primary culprit, but mixing benzos with opioids (let alone with cocaine too) does increase overdose risk, and is better avoided.
I knew that, of course. Yet the pandemic had affected me a lot more than I thought. That paralyzing, high-school anxiety flooded through me again, making it impossible to perform basic daily tasks, let alone function professionally and creatively.
Then one day, I was offered 100 potent “Xanax” bars for CA$300, which is cheap as fuck! I found out later they were etizolam, yet another benzo. (Testing any pills you don’t get from pharmacies is always the way to go, and some ways to identify pressed pills are explained here, together with other harm reduction information.) But when benzodiazepines in general are being sold for $3 to $5, even when the effects don’t touch these bars, how could I say no?
Here’s an illustrated journey through my benzo use in a fluctuating market over the course of the pandemic.
Where I live, when you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder but are on methadone, you can either kiss your benzo script goodbye, or go daily to pick up your medication. So I wasn’t using benzos as much in the first half of 2020—the odd “clazzy” script or some Ativan, but they did fuck-all for my anxiety.
Then I went through a few bad nights and days of really hurting from strong benzo withdrawal, unable to eat or sleep. Some people don’t think you can go through a benzo withdrawal. Well, I’ve been through withdrawals from a few drugs in my time, and I’ve found benzos to be one of the worst. In extreme cases, it can even kill you.
So when this new plug arrived, I was ready to binge—looking not just to remove my anxiety, but for the euphoric high that benzos can also provide. I bought this cheap “Xanax” and went off—bundles of cocaine, cooking crack, ketamine and so on. And that was just Day One of the binge that led to my overdose on June 11.
Afterwards, I sought to wean myself off of the bars a few times, either buying only very small amounts or using my prescribed Valium. By September, they were gone. I started to look into finding more, and that’s when I got confirmation from the source that I wasn’t looking for “Xanax”—I was looking for etizolam. Regular benzos, at that point, wouldn’t get me high. I would buy a script of “clazzys” and eat them all; it didn’t come close to what the cheap etizolam bars would do.
In October and November, I was back on the hunt again, but there were no bars to be found. There were rumors here and there of a new shipment coming in from the dark web, but nothing—nothing stable. What was I going to do? Not that I needed to have these bars everyday, but they really were the only drug that would give me a good high, besides cocaine and fentanyl—and I didn’t want to go back to using those drugs at that time. So needs must.
Once in a while a new shipment would come in, or there would be a new supplier. My buddy and I always test a new supply. The best ones since the summer supply were these new “Rocket Candies” or “Xanny Tarts” that arrived in November.
They’re apparently specially dipped into etizolam liquid but also coated in the sweet flavor of your favorite kids’ candy, a “Rocket.” Then comes the thickness of a benzo—and if anyone has tried chewing a benzo, they will know the taste.
I love the taste of benzos. It’s kind of like—well, the best analogy that comes to mind is liking the smell of gas. I love the taste of a good xanny bar, even before mixed with candy.
But pills produced to look like this raise questions about who they’re being marketed to, and whether they could mistakenly get into the wrong hands. And even if nothing bad actually happens, we know that the fear-mongering media will have a field day with such possibilities. Let’s encourage drug sellers to get back to harm reduction, as many of them do so well, and avoid the risks and the noise of making pills look like candy.
They weren’t around for a while, but finally a sustainable batch arrived. During the pandemic, the consistent quality and quantity you’d expect from a trusted source has become harder than ever to find. This guy at least had a sustainable, secure supply of double-stacked green bars.
They don’t really pretend to be “Xanax”—they are stamped with “606S.” But I found them so pleasurable and smooth that I could easily imagine them to be real. They’re a stable option, with no super-intense high, and help me a lot with anxiety and pressure. If I take one in the morning, it lasts all day.
The unappealing part about them is that they’re twice the price of other pills. Still, I guess you often get what you pay for. They can also be a hassle to get where I am, but I consider it worth it.
In December I heard about another deal I could not refuse: 50 white bars, CA$2.50 per—which is the price everyone seeks, but few can find. I bought those 50, which were the worst I ever had. I could take five and not feel a thing. And they tasted nasty, not sweet in that benzo way I love.
So I sold most of those whites to someone who apparently liked them, and switched back to these green bars. And fuck it, they have been the best yet—you never really know until you actually pay for them and test them. I’d pay $8 all day long for something that’s going to get me high and take my anxiety away. That’s what benzos do, and after the year we’ve all had, who wouldn’t want that?
And these are what I’m still using right now. I have been doing this since my teens—tasting, testing and enjoying the relief benzos give me.
We all should learn about harm reduction and do what we can to keep ourselves and others safer. We need more resources and literature to keep people safe while they try, often without adequate health care access, to take away the crippling anxiety that so many of us share.
And we desperately need—as with all drugs—a safe supply of benzos so that people don’t have to go through the uncertainties and risks I’ve described. But either way, I’m going to live my own life as I see fit; I’m not stopping anytime soon for anyone.
All photographs by Matthew Bonn
Matthew is the program coordinator with the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs. He’s also a National Board member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Board member of the International Network of Health and Hepatitis in Substance Users, and a knowledge translator for the Dr. Peters Centre. His freelance writing has appeared in publications including The Conversation, CATIE, Doctors Nova Scotia, Policy Options and The Coast. Matthew is also on Canada’s 64th Canadian Delegation on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He is a current drug user and a formerly incarcerated person.
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