Tests strips, used to detect the presence of fentanyl and xylazine in different kinds of drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, lay next to a bag of heroin at St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in New York City on May 25, 2023. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Fatal overdoses linked to tranq dope—the deadly combination of illicit fentanyl and the veterinary sedative xylazine—are skyrocketing according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report said fentanyl overdoses that included xylazine spiked 276 percent from 2.9 percent to 10.9 percent between January 2019 and June 2022, in 21 jurisdictions. The deaths are more prevalent in the Northeast U.S..
Tranq has become notorious because of the severe skin lesions that some users develop, in extreme cases requiring people to have amputations. It also knocks users out for hours, and many users previously told VICE News they would take a hit of tranq, pass out, and wake up in withdrawal without experiencing any euphoria. Because xylazine is a sedative and not an opioid, it does not respond to naloxone; naloxone should still be given to people having suspected tranq overdoses to reverse the effects of any opioids they may have taken. But extended rescue breathing and oxygen tanks may also be required. In April, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) designated fentanyl adulterated with xylazine an “emerging threat.” Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the ONDCP, has said tranq has been detected in all 50 states. In early June, Pennsylvania temporarily made xylazine a Schedule III drug, purportedly to more easily arrest people cutting it into the illicit drug supply. In 2021, 575 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania involved tranq dope, up from 90 overdose deaths in 2017. “This action will protect veterinarians and other legitimate users and manufacturers of xylazine, which is an important medication for animal sedation, while also creating penalties for people who add illicit xylazine to the drug supply that is harming people in our communities,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, acting health secretary for the state, in a news release.
Ohio undertook a similar measure in March. The Combating Illicit Xylazine Act, a bipartisan House and Senate bill, was introduced in March to schedule xylazine federally to allow the Drug Enforcement Administration to more easily track its presence in the supply chain. However, drug policy and addictions experts previously told VICE News they’re concerned that scheduling xylazine will make it harder to study its impact on humans and could make the drug supply even more toxic once something else takes its place. The Senate recently passed a bill that directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to further research tranq and other synthetic opioids. Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.