Xanax is the brand name for a benzodiazepine medication that’s called alprazolam. It’s one of the most common benzodiazepines in the United States, and it’s used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. However, as a central nervous system depressant, it can cause euphoric, relaxing effects similar to alcohol. It’s often used recreationally, and it may be bought and sold illicitly. However, it’s difficult to buy and sell legitimate prescription drugs. Though some prescriptions are diverted and fall into the wrong hands, it’s often easier to buy and sell fake versions of prescription medications.
What does Xanax look like, and can you tell a real pill from a fake one?
Xanax comes in a variety of colors and shapes, and generic forms of alprazolam may come in even more variety. The Xanax brand is owned by Pfizer, and they distribute Xanax in several varieties. Xanax may distribute different doses of the medication that are differentiated by color. In other cases, other companies produce generic versions of the medication, and the law prohibits them from selling pills that are exactly like the brand name.
Xanax produces several prescriptions in pill form with different colors and strengths. Xanax comes in oval, triangular, and rectangular tablets. Xanax produces a white bar that’s mimicked by generic alprazolam brands that sell it in different colors. Xanax comes in a light blue oval shape with a flat rim. This tablet is for a 1 mg dose. The pill is 9 mm long. On one side, the brand XANAX is printed, along with the dose in decimal form, reading “1.0.” The other side is scored along the width so users can break the pill into two equal halves. The pill is supplied by Pfizer U.S. Pharmaceuticals Group.
The white Xanax pill is also 9 mm long and comes in a similar oval shape as the blue pill. However, it contains a smaller amount of the drug at 0.25, which is only a fourth of the potency of the blue pill. Like the blue pill, one side is stamped with the brand and dose, and the other is scored along the width of the pill. It’s also supplied by Pfizer.
Pfizer also sells a faded red oval pill that contains 0.5 mg of alprazolam. It’s also the same size as the blue pill but contains half the amount of the active ingredient. It also has the brand and dose printed on one side with the width-wise scoring on the other side.
Pfizer also sells an extended-release pill with a different shape entirely. Xanax XR (X3) is a 3mg dose of alprazolam that’s released over a longer period of time. This pill comes in a rounded triangular shape with three equal sides. Each side has a raised circle in the center. On one side, a stylized X is printed. On the other, you can see the number 3. The pill is a pale green color.
Pfizer also produces a white rectangular tablet with four sections that are separated by scoring. The bar is 15 mm long. The full bar contains 2 mg of alprazolam and is scored so that users can break it into two 1 mg doses or four 0.5 mg doses. On one side, XANAX is written so that both Xs are in their own scored section, and ANA is written across the center two sections. On the other side, the number two is written sideways, relative to the brand.
Dava Pharmaceuticals Inc. produces a green alprazolam bar with the same general shape and word orientation as the white Xanax bar. However, since it’s not produced by Pfizer, it’s not technically Xanax but a generic form of alprazolam. Instead of the word Xanax printed on one side, the bar reads “S903” with the S and 3 in their own scored sections and 90 written across the two center sections. Like the white bar, the green bar also contains 2 mg of alprazolam.
A blue bar is produced by Breckenridge Pharmaceutical, Inc. The bar is the same shape, size, and dose as the white and green bar. It’s also not Xanax and has “B707” written on one side, and nothing is written on the other side.
A yellow bar is produced by Actavis Pharmaceuticals that has the same shape, size, and dose as the other bars. Like the blue bar, it has an identifier printed on one side and nothing on the other. The code reads R039.
Buying illegal Xanax is inherently dangerous. With the right equipment, drug dealers can press fake pills into shapes and colors that look identical to the real thing. However, fake pills are more likely to have discrepancies than the ones that come from the Pfizer manufacturer.
First, brands and logos you don’t recognize are a red flag. Some dealers are more concerned with building their own local brands than mimicking the real thing. They may also have a pill press without the popper stamps to make it look legitimate. They may put a symbol, word, or number on the pill just to make it look like a prescription drug.
Colors may also be slightly different, especially if the pill is cut with a colored substance. You may also find more subtle signs like a pill color that doesn’t match the dosage number. For instance, a blue oval pill that has a 0.5 printed on it. Xanax bars have a seamlessly tapered edge, while fake bars have a distinct ridge around the rim.
Still, legitimate pills are much more difficult to get than fake pressed pills. Fake pills may be much more common than the real thing, and they can be indistinguishable from real ones. If you buy Xanax from an illicit source, even if it looks real, it may not be.
People that buy pills from illicit sources may assume that they may be safer from additives than someone who buys powders, but pressing drugs into pills may be easier than you think. Dealers can get tablet presses online for between a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Then, the specific stamps that mimic the brand and dosage can be made or bought online from illicit sources.
Pressed pills may seem more authentic, affording the dealer a higher price tag. Dealers have a vested interest in producing a product that looks and feels like pharmaceutical grade substances. However, pressing their own pills allows them to tamper with the ingredients to stretch profits. Drugs can be mixed with inert substances that are cheaper than the drug itself. Then, selling the pill for the full price increases the profit. Some may be able to tell the difference, while others can’t. They may also include other active ingredients to alter the effects of the drug. Both active and inactive ingredients can cause unexpected side effects.
Illicit pills can be unpredictable, and one of the most significant reasons is a drug called fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that’s driven overdose death rates up over the past few years. The drug is many times more powerful than heroin. In fact, a dose as small as 2 milligrams can be deadly to the average adult. Fentanyl is often used unknowingly when the drug is mixed into other substances. It’s commonly mixed into heroin to increase the perceived quality of the drug. Heroin may be cut with inert substances that weaken its effects. A small and relatively cheap amount of fentanyl may increase the potency of the drug while increasing profits. However, since fentanyl is so powerful, it’s difficult for dealers to introduce an appropriate amount into the original mix. Plus, users may take a dose that’s appropriate for the weaker, cut heroin that they’re used to, which leads to an overdose.
In 2018, 67% of the 46,802 opioid overdose deaths involved substances containing synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Fentanyl isn’t just mixed into heroin; it’s also introduced into other drugs like benzodiazepines and even cocaine. In cocaine, the powerful opioid is used to counteract some of the negative side effects of cocaine and vise versa. However, this can lead to an overdose when users take higher doses because negative symptoms are masked.
Fentanyl may also be pressed into Xanax tablets, which can be extremely dangerous. Fentanyl is already extremely potent in small amounts. However, mixing it with a depressant like Xanax can have a compounding effect. Depressants and opioids potentiate one another because of their similar effects on the nervous system. Both can slow down your breathing and heart rate. When they’re combined, they can cause respiratory depression and overdose in relatively small doses of each individual drug.
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National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
RxList. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm
RxList. (2020, October 26). Xanax (Alprazolam): Uses, Dosage, Side Effects, Interactions, Warning. from https://www.rxlist.com/xanax-drug.htm