UAE doctors warn against black market Xanax after police drug bust

Sharjah police last week arrested nine men with anti-anxiety tablets worth more than $4 million

A female doctor of Middle Eastern ethnicity meets with a female patient. The doctor is wearing a hijab. The two women are seated at a table. The patient is diabetic and the doctor is holding an insulin pen and is explaining how to use the device. The patient is listening intently.

Doctors advised against the non-prescribed use of anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, after a major drug bust last week.

Medics urged the public to use only prescribed medications and not those provided over the counter.

As in many countries, strong anti-anxiety medication and tranquilisers are available only with a prescription in the UAE. Doctors are requird to seek health ministry approval for certain medicines that could be misused.

Some people don't have the patience to go through therapy

Last week, police in Sharjah said they arrested a gang of nine men and seized illegal Xanax tablets worth about Dh15 million ($4.1m).

Lama Younis, a practising psychologist, urged people with stress and anxiety to seek professional help rather than self medicate.

"Covid-19 has left an impact on people's lives – divorce, finances and depression are only a few from our list," said Ms Younis, who is based in Abu Dhabi.

"Some people don’t have the patience to go through therapy."

Sharjah Police said they arrested the men as they attempted to sell Xanax to a group of local dealers in the Emirates.

Although drug use is relatively rare in the country, the authorities previously ran a series of public campaigns and used examples of young people who were drawn into drug abuse.

Attempting to buy any form of illegal drug, including black-market medication, can lead to a jail term, fines and deportation.

Arun Kumar, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinics, said anxiety disorders were the most common mental health issues today – and that Covid-19 had brought the issue into sharp focus.

“Most modern doctors do not prescribe them for a long time, because the risks outweigh the benefits and there are safer alternatives available,” Dr Kumar said.

“The treatment of anxiety disorders has advanced drastically over the last few decades and includes various forms of counselling and behavioural therapy. Medicines should be used only when needed.”

Dr Kumar said tablets such as Xanax should be given under strict guidelines and it could be very risky if taken for a long time.

“"They are normally given for a few days or weeks and other milder antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicines are given for a few months or up to two years, based on the diagnosis," he said.

According to a study in the US, deaths related to the abuse of drugs such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan quadrupled between 2002 and 2015.

So-called "benzos" – short name for benzodiazepine – could become a worse health problem than the US opioid crisis, the National Institute on Drug Abuse study said.

Laila Mohamadien, specialist psychiatrist at Medcare Hospital in Sharjah, said such drugs could be highly addictive.

She had one patient who used the medicine for 10 years after her cardiologist prescribed it.

The diagnosis for the patient was "a case of severe anxiety disorder with frequent panic attacks", she said.

"She refused to take any medication but Xanax and when it was out of stock, she got admitted to the hospital fearing cardiac problems.

“Her heartbeat reached 130 and her blood pressure shot up to 200/90. We advised her to stop taking the pills but she didn’t. Instead, she changed doctors because each one would give her the tablets for a maximum of two months. When they refused to prescribe it again, she would go see another doctor.”

The risk of addiction can be high when people take such pills for recreational because it causes a mild to moderate sense of euphoria.

“Youngsters might try it under peer pressure and even before they realise, they get addicted to it,” Dr Kumar said.

“When patients stop taking the pills, it can cause insomnia, restlessness and even seizures. So it is better to wean off in a gradual way under a doctor’s supervision.”

Additional reporting by Salam Al Amir