House Republicans want the federal government to schedule the animal tranquilizer xylazine, one of the key components of a drug cocktail called “tranq dope” that’s been linked to horrific wounds and amputations and has spread to at least 39 states.
In a letter addressed to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, Rep. August Plfuger of Texas, and Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida said the response to the infiltration of tranq into the drug supply “remains wholly inadequate.”
“Xylazine must be recognized as the threat it is and be scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). These are critical actions the Biden Administration must take to effectively curb the misuse and abuse of xylazine,” the letter reads.
If the DEA doesn’t schedule xylazine, the lawmakers said they will introduce legislation to do so.
But experts worry that scheduling xylazine will only further contaminate the street opioid supply, which has shifted from heroin to fentanyl and now includes the addition of tranq and other synthetic drugs. They’re also concerned it could limit future research on treating xylazine’s effects.
Tranq is typically a mixture of xylazine and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. VICE News first reported on the horrific wounds affecting Philadelphia-based tranq users, some of which are causing people to have their fingers and toes amputated, last March. In a follow-up story in November, we obtained exclusive data showing that tranq had spread to 39 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Tranq is also more dangerous than fentanyl alone because xylazine doesn’t respond to naloxone, making overdoses more complicated to reverse. (Naloxone should still be administered to people having suspected tranq overdoses). Because it’s not a controlled substance, it’s not included on most drug tests, so many users and healthcare providers aren’t aware that people are using it, nor do they have detox protocols to help people from the severe withdrawal they experience coming off tranq.
It’s not clear where in the supply chain xylazine is getting added to fentanyl, nor where it’s coming from.
Veterinary xylazine is typically sold as a liquid. VICE News Tonight’s documentary Beyond Fentanyl identified hundreds of Chinese suppliers selling powder xylazine online—some are already mixed with other common drug cutting agents. One of the sellers previously told VICE News that xylazine became “hot” among American customers in 2021 after President Donald Trump’s administration pressured China to ban fentanyl and its analogs in 2019.
The lawmakers’ letter called for the DEA and CBP to answer if the process for scheduling xylazine has been started; if the DEA plans to interdict xylazine’s illicit use; and to what extent CBP is scrutinizing shipments from China.
The DEA did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Last year, in response to questions about xylazine, a DEA spokesperson told VICE News, “Those are not controlled substances — not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act — so they do not fall under DEA’s purview.”
Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a scientist at the University of North Carolina who leads a drug checking program, said on the street level, scheduling xylazine wouldn’t make much of a difference because it’s almost exclusively found mixed with drugs that are already illegal.
“Scheduling xylazine only increases individual penalties, without being a comprehensive solution,” he said, adding that a real solution would include funding for clinical research and wound care.
Dasgupta said he’s already seeing new drug combinations with substances that are similar to xylazine but with a greater risk of stopping a person from breathing.
“Since we’re already seeing the next thing show up, it’s going to be a perpetual cat and mouse game,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by Dr. Ryan Marino, medical director of toxicology and addiction medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
“This is more of the same short-sighted and reactionary political grandstanding that may help politicians but won't help any American citizens and doesn’t solve any of our drug problems,” Marino said. “Our toxic drug supply is a direct result of failed policy and a failed War on Drugs.”
Sarah Laurel, founder of the Philadelphia-based harm reduction group Savage Sisters, which provides on-the-street wound care to tranq users, said she fears that scheduling xylazine will make it harder to research how to treat its effects.
Doing clinical trials to determine the best way to treat people using xylazine would already be difficult because the drug is not approved for use in humans.
“If we schedule it, I don't know how that's going to limit our ability to start treating these things and updating withdrawal protocols,” she said, adding that drug traffickers will find a way around any new bans.
“We've seen that when we schedule substances and make it more difficult for the criminal drug market, that a new, more lethal and potent substance will hit the market. All we're doing is creating a space where the drug market is just going to adapt. It always does.”
Laurel said she believes part of the solution is giving drug users a safe supply of heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs that are free of contaminants.
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