WAITING at a bus stop in Middlesbrough, teenager Finlay Small is approached by a desperate stranger holding a blue pill in his hand.
"He told me it was diaze, which is diazepam," says the coffee shop worker, 18. "I said no and he then asked if I had any money instead."
"There’s lots of addicts in this town," he adds. "You see loads of groups of people who look like they are doing drugs.
"I didn't realise benzos were so easy to get hold of."
In hard-up towns across the north of England, the cost of living crisis is fuelling a wave of killer drugs being sold for as little as 20p a pill.
Benzodiazepines, also known as 'benzos', are used to treat anxiety and are available from GPs, but over recent years the highly addictive pills have spilled on to the streets.
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Street versions of diazepam – also called Valium, a type of benzos – have caused the biggest spike in deaths, with 171 people losing their lives in England and Wales last year, compared to 62 in 2020.
In Scotland, which has been dubbed the drugs capital of Europe, deaths have increased almost five fold over the past seven years.
As the blue pills continue to rise in popularity, residents of towns like Middlesbrough admit they are too scared to leave their homes due to gangs of dealers flogging illegal prescription drugs.
And former users have told The Sun how they struggled for years to kick their addictions, with one even crashing his van while high.
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'Harder than heroin to kick'
Diazepam is being offered on the internet without a prescriptionand not just on the 'dark web'.
Famous addicts have included the late Heath Ledger and Whitney Houston, while McFly's Dougie Poynter admitted he can't remember two years of his life while hooked on Valium.
An addiction expert claims it is easier to get people off crack cocaine than stop them using benzos, a class C drug also known as bluies.
Steve Pope, who has been dealing with more and more diazepam addicts in Lancashire, said: “I’d rather work with a crack or a heroin addict. The withdrawal process from benzos is so hard.
“It can literally take years to taper down to get clean – stop it dead and go cold turkey. It’s a matter of shaving off 1mg a day, waiting a couple of months, then repeating.
“It’s absolute torture, and I wouldn’t wish the withdrawal symptoms on my worst enemy.”
Fear on the streets
Research by Warwick University in 2019 revealed that GPs were 45 per cent more likely to dole out benzos in the poorest areas.
The effect can be seen in Middlesbrough, which is ranked as the fifth most deprived local authority in England.
Groups of addicts walk through the North Yorkshire town, approaching people and asking for drugs.
One couple, who live in nearby Hemlington, say they don't feel safe.
The woman, in her 60s, is wheelchair-bound and takes prescription medication, but keeps it hidden at home to avoid becoming a target of theft.
Speaking anonymously, she said: "I don't like leaving the house after 3pm.
"There are gangs of people out and all of their behaviour stems from drugs.
"The drug issue is a wider problem, but benzos are on the rise."
Pharmacy and shop workers in the town centre also recount seeing addicts coming in "every day" for prescriptions before flogging them on the streets.
One shop worker said: "We have people come in and thieve from us every day.
"You then see them later on lying on the streets in the middle of the day."
Barrister Finlay added: "I overheard a conversation outside a pharmacy.
"One man asked the other if he had been in yet, because he wanted to buy the prescription.
"It just shows that these drugs are easy to get a hold of.
"But the addicts won't know exactly what is in them, and they end up just wanting more."
Brian Jones, CEO of The Moses Project, a Stockton-On-Tees-based charity that supports men with addiction, said: "Benzodiazepines are a major problem.
"Many of them come from China and are sold on the dark web. People buy them in large quantities and sell them on the street.
"They're very cheap, a strip containing 10-12 pills can cost £1, which is enough to overdose."
But children, OAPs and people from all walks of life are getting hooked.
Steve said: “I’m working with increasing number of teenagers and even children who get hooked on street versions of benzos for pennies.
“I’ve got a 73-year-old former Crown Prosecution lawyer who’s been addicted for over 25 years, businessmen, personal trainers, stay-at-mums – you name it, they’re coming to see me addicted, desperate.”
Life is cheap
Dominic Streeter, who made the Netflix documentary Ten Dollar Death Trip about the fentanyl crisis in Vancouver, Canada, is now looking at rising deaths from banned substances on British shores.
The filmmaker, 40, tells The Sun: “We are currently filming a documentary that looks at UK drug policy.
“That has a real focus on Scotland, which is the closest thing to what I saw in downtown Vancouver. It is really harrowing.
“Scotland is now the drug death capital of Europe.
“There is a problem with benzos – 20p each, basically s****y street valium.
“You can buy a bag of one of them, which could be totally different from another and it is a game of Russian roulette.
“People are taking them with heroin and alcohol and other substances.”
In Scotland benzodiazepines were found in the systems of 73 per cent of people who died from drug abuse.
Annemarie Ward, CEO of the nationwide support group Faces and Voices of Recovery UK, agreed with the 20p figure and warned that the pills were wrecking “the poorest communities.”
She says: “The cost of living crisis means people are turning to cheaper drugs like street valium.
"But it is the quickest and cheapest way to oblivion.
“It’s about people being in absolute dire straits.
“People are dropping like flies but people are still willing to take chances.”
Can't kick it
Giving up is incredibly difficult because benzodiazepines bind themselves to the brain's receptors.
Steve believes that poorly trained doctors are dishing them out too readily.
NHS advice is not to take them for more than four weeks, but GPs keeping handing them out for years.
Jo Halsey, 51, from Hull, has just started to wean herself off diazepam after being prescribed the drug 13 years ago.
She reveals: “I was told my kidneys were only working at a third of their normal capacity because of my medication – how can that be good?
“Then, three months ago, my counsellor explained I was ‘addicted’ to the pills.
“I was honestly in shock that I was under the same umbrella as a heroin addict, and none of it was my fault.
“Since then, I’ve managed to reduce my diazepam dose from 10mg to 5mg a day, and I feel like the clouds are lifting for the first time in over a decade.”
One mum of two was told by her GP that she could have died when she suddenly quit the drug for two weeks.
Sarah Williams, 35, from Newcastle, wanted to go cold turkey after doctors kept upping the doses to reduce the pain of a serious back injury.
She says: “I couldn't sleep, the room was constantly moving, I was suffering hallucinations, constant headaches, crippling anxiety and the weirdest aches and pains.
“My GP was horrified, telling me going cold turkey from long-term diazepam use was the worst thing I could have done.
“He said I was lucky I hadn't suffered a seizure or even a heart attack.”
The admin manager was placed on a tapering program which gradually reduced her intake over three years.
The medical profession has reduced prescriptions of the drug in England from 11.3 million in 2010 to 8.6 million in 2020.
But a report last year by the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry claimed that 72 per cent of benzodiazepines being dispensed were unnecessary.
Easy to buy
But users unable to get them from GPs turn to the dark web or street dealers.
Labs making black market versions have been uncovered in Greater Manchester,Scotland and Kent in the past couple of years.
Billy Davies, 35, electrician and dad of two from Wigan crashed his work van after taking too many benzos.
He’d started buying the drug when the GP prescription wasn’t enough to fulfil his urge for more.
Billy said: “It’s so incredibly easy to get hold of benzos now, and so cheap – even when I was taking 50mg a day, it was only costing me just over a pound a day.
“I developed the most horrific paranoia that people were watching me and trying to kill me, and even wrote-off my work van early one morning after having taken loads of benzos the night before – groggy and not with it, I really shouldn’t have been driving.
“The police tested me at the crash scene, but obviously didn’t pick up on the sky-high levels of drugs in my system – I haven’t drunk alcohol for years now, and that seemed to be all they were looking for.
“I could’ve easily killed myself, or someone else.”
Thanks to Steve Pope he is now getting off the substance.
Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, and other psychotropic drugs can be of benefit to patients when they are prescribed in accordance with clinical guidelines – currently there are very limited reasons for prescribing these medications – and after a frank discussion about the risks and benefits of taking them, and alongside regular review.
"The College has welcomed the recent guideline from NICE on dependence forming medicines, which aims to reduce the prescribing or use of medicines such as these, where appropriate and possible, given they can be highly addictive.”
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Billy concludes: “All I can say to anyone is don’t go anywhere near benzos – they’re worse than any other drug.
“I’m one of the lucky ones.”
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