Benzodiazepine Boom: Tracking Etizolam, Pyrazolam, and Flubromazepam from Pre-UK Psychoactive Act 2016 to Present Using Analytical and Social Listening Techniques

Anthony Mullin, Mark Scott, Giorgia Vaccaro, Giuseppe Floresta, Davide Arillotta, Valeria Catalani, John M Corkery, Jacqueline L Stair, Fabrizio Schifano, Amira Guirguis

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Introduction: The designer benzodiazepine (DBZD) market continues to expand whilst evading regulatory controls. The widespread adoption of social media by pro-drug use communities encourages positive discussions around DBZD use/misuse, driving demand. This research addresses the evolution of three popular DBZDs, etizolam (E), flubromazepam (F), and pyrazolam (P), available on the drug market for over a decade, comparing the quantitative chemical analyses of tablet samples, purchased from the internet prior to the implementation of the Psychoactive Substances Act UK 2016, with the thematic netnographic analyses of social media content. Method: Drug samples were purchased from the internet in early 2016. The characterisation of all drug batches were performed using UHPLC-MS and supported with 1H NMR. In addition, netnographic studies across the platforms X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit, between 2016–2023, were conducted. The latter was supported by both manual and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven thematic analyses, using and ChatGPT, of social media threads and discussions. Results: UHPLC-MS confirmed the expected drug in every sample, showing remarkable inter/intra batch variability across all batches (E = 13.8 ± 0.6 to 24.7 ± 0.9 mg; F = 4.0 ± 0.2 to 23.5 ± 0.8 mg; P = 5.2 ± 0.2 to 11.5 ± 0.4 mg). 1H NMR could not confirm etizolam as a lone compound in any etizolam batch. Thematic analyses showed etizolam dominated social media discussions (59% of all posts), with 24.2% of posts involving sale/purchase and 17.8% detailing new administration trends/poly-drug use scenarios. Artificial intelligence confirmed three of the top five trends identified manually. Conclusions: Purity variability identified across all tested samples emphasises the increased potential health risks associated with DBZD consumption. We propose the global DBZD market is exacerbated by surface web social media discussions, recorded across X and Reddit. Despite the appearance of newer analogues, these three DBZDs remain prevalent and popularised. Reporting themes on harm/effects and new developments in poly-drug use trends, demand for DBZDs continues to grow, despite their potent nature and potential risk to life. It is proposed that greater controls and constant live monitoring of social media user content is warranted to drive active regulation strategies and targeted, effective, harm reduction strategies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number12010013
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2024


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