Drug checking identifies counterfeit alprazolam tablets

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2020 Oct 22;108300. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108300. Online ahead of print.


Background: Non-prescribed benzodiazepine use is increasing in North America, especially among youth. Owing to increasing demand, counterfeit benzodiazepine tablets are mass-produced in clandestine, unregulated environments and sold as legitimate pharmaceuticals. This study aimed to examine the contents of counterfeit alprazolam tablets available in the unregulated drug market in British Columbia, Canada.

Methods: Data were collected from an ongoing evaluation of a community drug checking service in British Columbia between October 2017 and March 2020. The service operates point-of-care in harm reduction sites using Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometers coupled with fentanyl and benzodiazepine immunoassay strips. A subset of samples were sent for confirmatory analysis at partner laboratories and underwent one or more of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry, and quantitative nuclear magnetic resonance analysis.

Results: During the study period, 10,814 total samples were submitted for drug checking, 139 of which were expected to be Xanax (alprazolam) or generic tablets and met the criteria for inclusion. Using FTIR analysis, 33 (23.7 %) samples were identified to contain alprazolam. Only 122 samples were checked using benzodiazepine immunoassay strips and 88 (72.1 %) tested positive. Qualitative results from the 20 samples submitted for confirmatory analysis included various new psychoactive substances and only 2 contained only alprazolam.

Conclusions: Our findings provide evidence that Xanax tablets obtained from the unregulated drug market are likely to be counterfeit and may not contain alprazolam. Drug checking offers people who use drugs a valuable means to determine the contents of their substances; however, limitations of point-of-care technologies must be considered.

Keywords: Alprazolam; Drug checking; Etizolam; Fentanyl; Harm reduction.