- Associated Press - Saturday, June 11, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Aaron Dimler was on his way. The captain of his football team at Roseville High School, he had a job, a long-term girlfriend and a scholarship worth $240,000 to study and play football at Macalester College.

Then he started taking Xanax.

When he saw that University of Minnesota wrestlers might be involved in a ring to buy and sell the same anti-anxiety drug he was abusing, Dimler chose to speak up.

“I thought I was an anomaly - a college athlete that screwed up my football career and my school career by using drugs,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1TXr9gA ). “But when I saw that, I knew it wasn’t just me. I knew it was a bigger problem.”

Dimler, 19, has completed drug treatment, more than two months after he was admitted for in-patient care. After flunking out of school. After the withdrawal seizures. After waking up in his girlfriend’s car surrounded by the flashing lights of White Bear Lake police squad cars.

He suspects he had been passed out for hours and still doesn’t remember everything about that night. But one thing, he said, was immediately clear.

“I knew at that point I was going to jail, and that it was not going to end well,” he said.

Xanax, or alprazolam, is an anti-anxiety drug in the benzodiazepine family, a depressant similar to Valium and Ativan prescribed for extremely stressful situations for those suffering from severe anxiety, such as plane trips or the first day of school.

Abuse of prescription opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin have dominated the drug-abuse narrative in recent years, for good reason. But benzodiazepine has become “a huge problem,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum in Plymouth.

Minnesota’s wrestling program is being investigated internally and by campus police after an anonymous wrestler alleged that teammates were using and selling Xanax. Coach J Robinson was placed on paid administrative leave June 1 by new athletics director Mark Coyle.

The news didn’t surprise Lee.

“Young people make mistakes, but prescription drug abuse is an everyday problem on college campuses,” he said.

Overdose benzodiazepine deaths are growing, Lee said, but that’s not the only frightening thing about benzodiazepine addiction. For one thing, one’s tolerance for drugs such as Xanax increases quickly and by leaps and bounds, as Dimler can attest.

Dimler had tried Xanax in high school, he said, but just once. “It didn’t do much for me,” he said. So when, as a freshman at Macalester, a friend suggested he try it to help him sleep, he didn’t think twice. He took 1 milligram, four times the usually prescribed dosage.

Within weeks, he was physically dependent. The day of his DWI arrest, March 9, he had taken 12 “bars,” large, easily purchased tablets of 2.5 milligrams each - 10 times the usual dosage for Xanax. That night, Dimler took 120 times the usual dosage.

That combination of tolerance and dependence, Lee said, makes it hard, if not impossible, to kick without medical treatment, sometimes causing seizures - which happened to Dimler.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the fact that, like alcohol, benzodiazepines can cause blackouts, which is how Dimler came to be in police custody. In a sense, he was lucky. Blackout behavior on drugs like Xanax can be dangerous.

“I see cases, multiple times each month, involving young people who have come to us after doing something really, really regrettable under the influence of benzodiazepines,” Lee said. “It causes anterograde amnesia, which is a blackout, and the alarming thing is some of these young people are acting in harmful ways, committing crimes when completely blacked out, going on stealing sprees, driving for hours, running into trees, being date raped.

“It’s incredibly dangerous, and as with alcohol, you don’t have to be addicted to have a blackout.”

Dimler’s grandmother, Kathleen Faschingbauer, answered the phone call when Aaron was jailed. She had raised him since his birth; took him to church, watched his football practices, made sure he studied. By the time he graduated from Roseville last spring, Aaron had a 3.7 grade-point average and an ACT score of 30.

Seeing him that night in March was stunning. “Devastating,” Faschingbauer called it. “Shattering. It shattered me.”

“His senior year (in high school), he had secondary enrollment at Northwestern College; he already had 34 college credits when he graduated,” she said. “He had a 16-dollar-an hour job. He had a girlfriend for four and a half years. Then he went to Macalester and within three months was fully and completely addicted to Xanax.”

There is no training component to taking Xanax, which often is taken to increase the effect of other drugs to which users already are becoming tolerant. For Dimler, it was marijuana. For others, Lee notes, it might be heroin. Suddenly, a user is addicted to two drugs.

After being academically suspended at Macalester at the end of the first semester in December, Dimler was off the football team and out of hope. Xanax, he said, had “robbed me of all motivation.”

He enrolled at Century College but didn’t go to class, just took Xanax and smoked marijuana. By then, Dimler estimates, he was spending up to $1,500 a month on Xanax, buying from acquaintances, or strangers on the street at the corner of Snelling and University avenues in the Midway neighborhood.

When the money ran out, Dimler sold some of his own pills, something Lee notes is common.

“People shouldn’t jump so quickly to conclusions,” Lee said. “It sounds horrible - ‘dealing drugs.’ But you’d be surprised to see how many kids are involved with dealing prescription drugs on college campuses. If it’s finals, and your friend is struggling, you have an extra Adderall and sell it for five bucks, you just dealt drugs.

“Young people make mistakes. I’m working with so many college kids; they shouldn’t be skewered,” Lee said.

James Johnson, manager of addiction care for HealthEast in St. Paul, said the majority of patients he sees are abusing prescription drugs.

“What we hear from our young adults is it’s easier to get those kinds of drugs than alcohol and nicotine, because people are checking for those,” Johnson said.

They’re also easier to obtain than opioids and cheap; Dimler said he was buying bars for $5, and Lee said that price can be as low as $2.

Lee said benzodiazepines, real and counterfeit, are easily available on the illicit Internet marketplace known as “the dark web.” Using a program that will disguise a computer’s IP address, virtually anyone can buy drugs online without a prescription and have them delivered anywhere.

“There are hundreds of thousands of Xanax bars out there,” he said. “It’s such a craze that kids are getting wise to counterfeiters that are using pill pressers to create fakes that look like Xanax bars.”

According to data compiled by Carol Falkowski, founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues in St. Paul, alprazolam was the 10th-most prescribed drug in the Twin Cities in 2014-15. In an April report called Twin Cities Drug Abuse Trends, alprazolam is listed sixth among drugs seized by law enforcement over the same period.

If not for his run-in with police, Dimler might still have been using, or worse, instead of graduating from a two-month treatment program in South Minneapolis.

The plan is to move in with his mother, get a job and ultimately go back to school in the fall or spring, maybe at Augsburg, maybe the University of Minnesota. He has a pre-trial hearing July 12 to address his arrest on fourth-degree driving while impaired.

Dimler acknowledges that he once “had everything going for me.” A starting defensive end on the Macalester football team as a freshman, he had a scholarship worth $63,000 a year. Had he applied himself, he said, he could have earned a valuable degree from one of the country’s most respected schools.

“It’s definitely a bummer,” he said. “That’s a lot of money out the window.”

A Macalester spokesperson said, “We take reports of this nature very seriously. The safety and well-being of all Macalester students is our top priority.”

On June 6, Dimler was set to share his story with seniors at Roseville, a warning to the curious he hopes will prevent others from suffering similar grief. He tries not to dwell on regrets, but he won’t forget them, either.

“I keep them as kind of a reminder,” he said. “I try and not hold any regrets because the whole experience made me grow as a person. I’ve seen a lot of other people struggling, helped other people, and it has helped me articulate exactly what I want to do, which is become a chemical-dependency counselor.

“So I try not to hold any regrets. But there are some things I wish I had done differently, and things I’ll do better in the future.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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