Xylazine, a tranquilizer used for animals, is increasingly detected in heroin and fentanyl in cities beyond Philadelphia, where the dangerous trend has become a crisis.
This week, local news in Portland, Maine and Los Angeles, California, reported growing concern in their communities over the drug, which is approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for veterinary use in large animals, but not for human consumption.
Most drug users inject xylazine — known as ‘tranq’ or ‘zombie drug’— accidentally because it is mixed in with heroin and fentanyl. The drug depresses the central nervous system and can slow breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously low levels. It often causes the drug user to black out for hours, making them more vulnerable to robbery and sexual assault.
Further, the sedative can cause painful skin lesions and soft tissue infections, which can cause necrosis, or tissue death, which in extreme cases can lead to amputation and death.
In April, The White House issued a statement declaring xylazine ‘an Emerging threat,’ with Philadelphia at its epicenter. In 2021, the drug was already in 90% of the city’s opioid samples, concentrated in the Kensington neighborhood, which has become plagued with rampant homelessness, violence and dangerously unsanitary conditions.
“It’s too late for Philly,” Shawn Westfahl, a health services outreach worker told the New York Times in January, “Philly’s supply is saturated. If other places around the country have a choice to avoid it, they need to hear our story.”
Xylazine has been found in the drug supply in 36 states, according to a June 2022 study, and this year the CDC reported xylazine detected in an increasing number of overdose deaths in at least 20 states.
In the event of a xylazine overdose, experts recommend giving someone a dose of naloxone since it is mixed with opioids, but ‘tranq’ itself is not an opioid and won’t respond to opioid reversal medication. Health officials are concerned the rise in xylazine will also result in a rise in overdose deaths for this reason.
Researchers found xylazine used as an adulterant in heroin as far back as 20 years ago in Puerto Rico. And since 2016, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been expressing concern about a heroin “air bridge,” referring to drug users in Puerto Rico who pay to go to Philadelphia for promised addiction treatment, but find themselves stranded in unregulated and ineffective recovery homes that sometimes collect government assistance as payment for their stay.
In 2017, Philadelphia councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes Kensington called the ‘air bridge’ "human trafficking under the guise of recovery," according to local news outlet Philadelphia 10.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, help is available 24 hours a day through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Hotline at 1-800-662-4357 .