The heartbreak drug: Xanax at CU Boulder

Editor’s note: Names and identities have been changed.

A little white pill flew through the musty, college dorm room air from Lloyd’s fingertips. Caught in Cat’s awaiting mouth, the pill took effect, and her rising gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels began suppressing the firing of neurons in her brain. Cat collapsed. Spread on the floor, mumbles of unintelligible words spilled from her mouth, a zombie-like state that again satisfied her craving to escape reality.

A prescription sedative, Xanax combats general anxiety and panic disorders with a potent ability to numb. But on the streets and in the dorm halls of CU Boulder, that potency — amplified by alcohol — has caused a surge in its popularity for those looking to erase their memory for a night. The CU Independent talked to 16 people whose lives have been touched by Xanax — some dealers, some casual users or addicts, some users with addict friends and some who didn’t use the drug but were financially involved in the campus market — to get a picture of Xanax use at CU. Some chose to share their stories here.

Since Cat was born in 1996, deaths from drugs like Xanax nationwide have increased five-fold. While Xanax-related deaths remain uncommon in Boulder, Steve Bentley, a substance abuse counselor at CU Boulder’s Wardenburg Health Center, said he’s seen an upswing in the recreational use of the drug over the past few years.

Before coming to CU in the fall of 2015, Cat grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, where she watched her father’s abuse turn from her mother to herself.

“Him physically hurting me took a toll,” she said. “I think that all guys lie, cheat and leave.”

What once manifested in years of blockading potential relationships, her deep distrust of men began to waver as she started her new life as a college freshman.

In her first weeks at CU, a boy named Max became the reason she looked forward to every freshman biology class. Their pairing as lab partners soon blossomed into the type of gushy romance she had dreamt of during her self-isolated high school years.

Texts zipped back and forth to her childhood friends, chronicling her new obsession. Dreams of forming a life with him – even marriage – advanced her departure from the anxieties about men she inherited from her father, and from reality.

A week before Cat’s sorority formal, a sorority-organized dance where she could show off her new boy to the rest of her sisters, Max proved Cat’s “lie, cheat and leave” theory.

Her suspicions of his constant flaking – the sporadically timed “lacrosse practices” – added up to her realization of his cheating, lying and leaving her to attend formal alone. Time turned from the eager hours she spent searching the internet for the perfect dress to lonely seconds slowly marching toward Friday.

She couldn’t confront formal sober. Her solution came two-fold with her upstairs drug dealer, Lloyd.

While Cat’s first few weeks of school were wrapped up in a boy, Lloyd’s were consumed with growing his drug business.

Two Xanax pills sit in the hands of a student drug dealer, February 2016. (Jackson Barnett/CU Independent)

Where the demand for drugs lurk, profit pounces. Across the country, university campus police have found highly organized drug rings run by students. At University of California Santa Cruz, a police raid uncovered over $100,000 in drugs being distributed to students, a network that moved cartel-level quantity with pharmaceutical industry-style efficiency.

Frank, Lloyd’s roommate, said Lloyd would disappear for hours into the study room down the hall, toiling over his business’s spreadsheets.

“He had a system,” Frank said. “He would show people the spreadsheets and how much money they could make.”

After a violent night of binge drinking early in the semester, court-ordered urine tests made Frank the sober observer to Lloyd’s business dealings.

Lloyd started pitching his business to his new friends in the dorm, hiring those he felt he could trust as dealers and using others as investors. One student, who claimed not to be a user or dealer of hard drugs, invested $5,000 cash in Lloyd’s business.

Cat sat next to Lloyd on his dorm room futon. Perpendicular to them, on Lloyd’s treasure-chest style trunk, Cat’s sorority sister Carla and her date passed a joint and bottle of booze around the group.

“When we walked out of the room, she was literally falling,” Carla said. “I just thought she was just really drunk.”

Once at the sorority house, Cat retreated to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, Carla found her collapsed on the floor, surrounded by a group of freshmen.

The cold tiles of the bathroom floor, exchanges with security guards outside the house and the Uber ride back to the dorms all disappeared from Cat’s memory. Emerging from the blackness the next morning, she lay half naked in Lloyd’s bed.

Before leaving Lloyd’s room the night before, Lloyd had offered Cat her first taste of Xanax. Billed as a quick-fix for her heartbreak, she washed it down with her fifth shot of the night.   

In her brain, the alcohol and Xanax combined to a potency more powerful than the sum of each part. Known as “synergizing,” the alcohol and Xanax mix impaired her memory, motor function and self-control.

“I woke up so much more sad, I didn’t remember anything,” Cat said. “I kept on not wanting to remember.”

Even with a prescription, the brain quickly develops a tolerance and dependency for the GABA increases that the drug creates. Without the synthetic boost, withdrawals cause the same, if not worse, symptoms of panic attacks, anxiety and insomnia the drug originally treats, according to Bentley.

Without the regulation of a prescription, the danger grows. Once obtained through overstocked medicine cabinets, bars of the drug now fall into the mouths of users through the dark web and dealers like Lloyd. According to Bentley, of the students he sees in his office who have taken Xanax, most have taken the larger 3 mg black-market sized pills.

“Anyone who is using regularly will have some form of dependence,” said Bentley, noting that the larger the dose, the faster a tolerance develops.

Keeping a constant supply of 3 mg bars to customers like Cat, Lloyd played his “game.” Frank, Lloyd’s roommate, recalled new users, almost always girls, showing up to catch bars in their mouth as Lloyd threw them from across the room.

“It was kind of demeaning,” Frank said about Lloyd’s game.

Pulled to Lloyd’s room after formal, Cat began to spend her days with Lloyd catching bars, smoking weed and drinking with him.

Among friend groups, like Cat’s, drug use can easily spread. Bentley guesses that for every user that self-elects to receive counseling or gets referred to his Wardenburg office, at least three more don’t.

While specific data on how many students use Xanax does not exist, reports from the National College Health Assessment Survey, a study administered to a sample of CU’s undergraduate students, show steady prescription drug use over the years. Roughly 8 percent of CU students claimed to have taken a prescription in the past 12 months, according to Wardenburg.

Those closest to Lloyd quickly got drawn into the drugs he pushed. According to Frank and other sources, Lloyd’s closest friends, some of whom had never touched drugs before college, quickly became his hard-drug clientele.

“With the access comes the abuse,” Bentley said.

With his drug money, Lloyd decorated the cinderblock walls of their dorm with a new flat screen TV and posters, while his closet overflowed with expensive shoes and new toys.

After repeated attempts, Lloyd declined requests for an interview. But Frank, Cat and those around him all said his money came from his connections with serious people, “cartel types” that would deliver large shipments of Xanax and other drugs for him to distribute.

When Lloyd would return from weekend pre-dawn package pickups, Frank would watch him count out hundreds of little white bars scattered across their table into little baggies, 10 each. Throughout the day, his dealers would roll through to pick up their packages, ready for distribution across campus.                              

In the winter months, Cat’s diet consisted of up to five bars a night, rarely eating or going to class. She found her only happiness at the end of Lloyd’s supply chain.

“It completely fucked my grades,” Cat said.

Other friends found themselves in similar academic situations. Some were placed on academic probation, while a handful did not return to CU after freshman year.

While some of the students Bentley sees are like Cat, drug abusers looking to suppress trauma, a majority use the drug in search of a weekend blackout, he said.

“Using substances to self-soothe — those are no longer recreational [users],” Bentley said.

In the waning days of their first semester, Cat and her friends planned to say goodbye to each other in typical, intoxicated fashion. Departing early the next morning before his urine test, Frank was free to drink and consume all the substances he desired.

As he invited Cat back to his room to split a bottle of red wine, Frank finally acted on the lust he felt for the girl who had spent months just inches from him, but distant in a Xanax-induced delirium.

In the green, ambient light of Frank’s bathroom, after Cat stained the toilet red with vomit, they ended their semester lips locked and bodies wrapped around each other.

Back home, Cat’s childhood friends pleaded for her use to stop. This wasn’t her first intervention, but it was the first time in which the friends intervening were not high themselves.

Drug use among college students hovers around 30 percent nationally — after college, that figure drops to 15 percent. According to Bentley, these numbers indicate that college students have a particular risk of drug abuse, but also that “half of them will be just fine.” Which of those will, it is impossible to tell, he said.

Returning to CU and the stresses of college life, Cat’s use continued. She made it clear to Frank she only desired a physical relationship, one that would not end in another heartbreak.

But after nights of sleeping together and Frank caring for Cat while in her zombie-Xanax binges, she couldn’t resist.

By mid-March she made a trade. Now her boyfriend, Frank’s affection filled the void of heartbreak and trauma that had been fueling her drug dependency. Instead of an emotional crutch, Xanax became a recreational habit.

As the leaves returned to the bare tree limbs, Cat began to pull out of her trough of addiction. Her only escape from the painful anxiety of withdrawals, Frank helped her regain her mental and physical health. Around her, Xanax remained a cornerstone of dorm hall life.

Cat fiddles with her hands during an interview in February 2016. (Jackson Barnett/CU Independent)

Soon, heartbreak struck again. Because of Frank’s legal and social troubles, his parents decided to pull him from CU, and did not allow him to return for his sophomore year.

When he broke the news to Cat, her unwavering desire to bury her pain in Xanax returned. A half-gram of coke, four bars and shots of alcohol sent her into relapse. This one gave her a concussion from a fall during one of her blackouts. Days before school let out for spring break, she paid Lloyd $110 for a drug order.

She waited for Lloyd to return with her drugs in his room over the next few days, but all that came was constant banging at the door from other students looking for their drugs and money too.

Lloyd’s investors began to grow restless for their returns. Frank watched as Lloyd’s system of early morning pick-ups began to fall through, leaving him short on money and supply.

Two days before spring break, Frank came back to a ransacked room to find handfuls of Lloyd’s clothes gone.

Lloyd’s spreadsheets failed. He owed money to people he couldn’t repay: his friends, his suppliers and his dealers. He had created a cycle, one that turned his closest friends from neighbors, to users, to abusers, to dealers. And now the original friendships that began the cycle were not strong enough for him to be forgiven or escape his mounting debt.

“I think what happened was that it got so big that he just wanted [his] mom,” Frank said.

In the wake of his untimely departure, he left behind his expensive toys, money and friends who – in part because of the access and encouragement he offered – were hooked.

In interviews with scores of users, dealers and others across campus, Xanax fell under the safe, umbrella word, “prescription,” to many students. But the drug’s dangers remain absent from many people’s perceptions.

Easy dependency on a drug that can cause lasting health effects and a hazardous loss of control during blackouts concerned Bentley.

“Why would [students] entertain the risk of going into a permanent coma by mixing alcohol and Xanax?” he asked.

By the end of their freshman year, Cat and her friends saw a trifecta: trauma, newfound independence and a lack of understanding of the drug’s power.

“People fell into that trap of [thinking] ‘it’s all good, it’s college, it’s fine,’” Frank said. “I don’t want to be that mature person, because I totally would be drinking if I was not forced to be sober … but I think ‘it’s college’ is a big justifier.”

For others, the draw to Xanax lies in the simply desire for a weekend blackout, and it will never become a dependency. But for Cat, and many like her, the need for escape morphed into a need for the pill.

Lloyd did not come back to CU for the rest of the semester after his spring break disappearance, and money owned to many of his friends and business partners has yet to be repaid.

The next year, Lloyd returned to CU, and, according to Cat, to dealing.

Contact CU Independent Multimedia Managing Editor Jackson Barnett at 

Jackson Barnett

Jackson Barnett is the editor-in-chief the CUI. Originally from D.C., his interests have turned eastward as an Asian Studies major. He hopes to take his writing, photography and Hindi language skills internationally to continue a career of reporting from South Asia. Follow him on twitter @JacksonWBarnett

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