Tox Tuesdays: Phenazepam

Although less known than other emerging drugs, evidence suggests phenazepam usage is growing worldwide.

Phenazepam was developed in the 1970’s in the former Soviet Union to treat neurological disorders, alcohol withdrawal and epilepsy. It also has been used prior to surgeries as it lessens anxiety while increasing the effectiveness of anesthetics1according to study published in 2012.

Phenezapam is most commonly ingested orally, and can cause amnesia, dizziness, drowsiness, depression of the central nervous system and ataxia when taken in excess of the therapeutic dose. It is five times stronger than diazepam (Valium), which increases the risk of overdose. It falls into the benzodiazepine group of drugs, which are controlled as schedule IV drugs in the U.S., although phenazepam has yet to be added to the list (it still is not allowed to be sold for human consumption).

In recent years, regulations have begun to catch up with phenazepam. Last May, Arkansas banned the drug as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which means it has no approved medical use and has a high potential for abuse. In 2011, the United Kingdom (U.K.) banned the import of the drug on the grounds it was being advertised as a “legal high” online without having any appropriate authorizations to be sold or used in the U.K. In 2012, phenazepam was added to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. In May, Germany approved an amendment to its Narcotics Act to add 26 new psychoactive substances to the act, including phenazepam.

Finland also has seen an increase in the popularity of phenazepam, so much so that researchers began studying the drug’s prevalence in autopsies, in cases where people had been stopped for driving under the influence and when police confiscated drugs2according to a study published in 2012. In 3.5 percent of cases of drivers stopped, phenazepam was present (141 cases – a seven-times increase from 2003). Additionally, in 95 percent of driving cases, other psychoactive substances were found. Phenazepam also was found in 17 medical-legal autopsies although it was not considered to be the sole cause of death (the most common cause was opiod overdose). In the same time period, police had 26 seizures of phenazepam, some mixed with other designer drugs.

Contact Neogen for inquiries regarding the detection of phenazepam, which cross-reacts with Neogen’s benzodiazepine group test.

1 Corkery, J. M., Schifano, F., & Ghodse, A. H. (2012). Phenazepam abuse in the U.K.: an emerging problem causing serious adverse health problems, including death. Human Psychopharmacology3, 254-61.

Kriikku, P., Wilhelm, L., Rintatalo, J., Hurme, J., Kramer, J., & Ojanperä, I. (2012). Phenazepam abuse in Finland: Findings from apprehended drivers, post-mortem cases and police confiscations. Forensic Science International, 111-7. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2012.02.006.

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