Mar. 4—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — A deadly animal tranquilizer that's causing overdose deaths in big cities such as Philadelphia is in western Pennsylvania and coming to Johnstown, authorities say.
Xylazine, also known as "tranq," "tranq dope" and "zombie drug," is used for sedation and anesthesia of large animals such as cattle and horses. When mixed with fentanyl or heroin and used by humans, its impact can be devastating, leading to death and skin lesions that can result in amputations.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday it will restrict imports of xylazine, which has become a common street drug in Puerto Rico.
Will xylazine turn up in Johnstown?
"Absolutely," said Thomas Owens, Stonycreek Township police corporal and former chief detective of the Cambria County Drug Task Force. "If it's in Philadelphia, it's only a matter of time before we see it here."
Much of the area's illegal drug trade flows from Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh, he said.
People report using xylazine or xylazine-containing drugs by injecting, snorting, swallowing or inhaling. Xylazine in humans slows breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously low levels.
Xylazine is just one of many additives found in an illicit drug supply that has shifted from heroin, a natural opioid derived from poppy plants, to lab-made synthetics such as fentanyl.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said the northeast U.S. saw the highest number of xylazine-positive overdose deaths in 2020 and 2021, with 1,912.
From 2015 to 2020, the percentage of all overdose deaths involving xylazine increased from 2% to 26% in Pennsylvania, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Narcan has no effect on xylazine because it is not an opioid.
Xylazine already has crept into the area. Indiana County recorded a xylazine-related overdose death in July 2022. Somerset County has had several recent cases involving xylazine and fentanyl, including one in Windber, Acting District Attorney Molly Metzgar said.
"While it is unfortunate that this substance has made its way into our county, our office along with local law enforcement intends to be as vigilant as ever in getting these lethal mixtures off of the streets," Metzgar said.
Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox said patrol officers must be trained and cautious when handling xylazine.
"This drug we haven't seen in the borough," Cox said. "We have to prepare the officers to recognize it and what personal hazards there might be to the officers who might come across it."
He referenced fentanyl, saying even casual skin contact can cause an officer to suffer an overdose.
Tips to police help identify new drugs in communities.
"A lot of times it's word of mouth," Conemaugh Township police Chief Vincent Zangaglia said. "A lot of times it's confidential informants and local agencies who give us a heads-up."