A cheap Chinese-made animal tranquilizer is making America’s opioid epidemic and fentanyl crisis even worse.
Xylazine, or ‘tranq’ as it is known on the street, has been dubbed a ‘zombie drug’ due to the lifeless, hunched-over state it leaves users.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimates that its prevalence is “vastly underestimated” and is making fentanyl, “the deadliest threat our country has ever faced,” even deadlier.
There are multiple reasons for concern, one of which is that it is incredibly cheap, as low as $1 per kilogram in Chinese online pharmacies. Furthermore, it is highly addictive and causes a number of horrifying side effects, including flesh-eating gaping wounds and a zombified stupor known as ‘dope lean’.
It is also much more difficult to treat overdoses since, unlike fentanyl, it is not an opioid, which makes Narcan less effective.
Xylazine first became widely used in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s as a result of being shipped from China. By 2006, it had landed in the continental US.
Xylazine, known on the street as ‘tranq’, is an animal tranquilizer developed in the 1960s to help vets treat cows, horses and sheep, among others.
Drug dealers in Puerto Rico began using it as a cutting agent in the early 2000s to make their supply last longer, spreading the high level of user sensation.
Known as an adulterant, xylazine lasts longer than drugs like fentanyl, making those substances last longer. It also gives a euphoric feeling that builds up with the high from the other drugs.
Experts estimate that at some point, xylazine was present in 80 percent of the supply of these substances in the territory. However, within a decade, users became dependent on xylazine alone.
In 2006, the illicit tranquilizer made its first appearance in the continental United States. At first, his presence was “sporadic,” the DEA said, but it increased steadily in the mid-2010s.
Xylazine is easy to make, having been around since the 1960s for approved use in animals, leading to it being produced at industrial levels in Chinese laboratories.
Despite recent efforts by Congress to make xylazine a controlled substance, which would criminalize its use, the drug is still widely available online, making it easy for it to flow undetected to the US East Coast.
Cases have skyrocketed. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that monthly xylazine overdose deaths increased from 12 in January 2019 to 188 in June 2022. It also found that monthly xylazine fentanyl overdoses increased by 276% in just over three years.
Chinese online pharmacies list xylazine powder for as low as $1 per kilogram. The average cost, according to the DEA, is $6 to $20 per kilogram.
However, these numbers only looked at 20 states, plus DC.
In a March report, the DEA stated that illicit xylazine has been found in 48 of the 50 states. In 2020, 808 drug overdoses were reported in which xylazine played a role. That number rose to 3,089 in 2021.
The largest increase in xylazine spread between 2020 and 2021 was in the South, with a 193 percent jump.
The number increased by 112 percent in the West, 61 percent in the Northeast and just 7 percent in the Midwest.
However, the DEA claimed that the Northeast still has the highest amount of illicit xylazine.
“It is highly likely that the prevalence of xylazine is vastly underestimated,” the October report states.
According to a 2022 study published in the journal Drug and alcohol dependencyxylazine was present in nearly 26 percent of overdose deaths in Philadelphia, 19 percent in Maryland, and 10 percent in Connecticut.
It has also been found in 90 percent of Philadelphia’s heroin supply. The city’s Kensington neighborhood is known as “ground zero” for the city’s drug crisis.
Between 2020 and 2021, xylazine-related overdose deaths skyrocketed 1,127 percent in the South, from 116 deaths to nearly 1,500. These deaths increased 750 percent in the West, 516 percent in the Midwest, and 103 percent in the Northeast.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that monthly xylazine overdose deaths increased from 12 in January 2019 to 188 in June 2022. The report also found that monthly xylazine fentanyl overdoses increased by 276% in just over three years.
Xylazine depresses the central nervous system, causing users, like these in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, to appear zombie-like.
“The presence of xylazine in illicit drug combinations and its detection in fatal overdoses may be more widespread than reported, as various jurisdictions across the country may not include xylazine in toxicology or forensic laboratory testing,” the DEA wrote.
In the US, xylazine is divided into opioids like fentanyl and heroin, which have relatively short durations, meaning users don’t stay high for long. However, xylazine lasts longer and stays in the body for up to eight hours.
Xylazine is now available online through the Chinese markets, which means distributors no longer have to source it from Puerto Rico. This broadens access, along with the fact that it’s so cheap.
A kilogram of the powder can be purchased online for as little as $1, with common prices ranging from $6 to $20.
“At this low price, its use as an adulterant can increase the profits of illicit drug dealers, since its psychoactive effects allow them to reduce the amount of fentanyl or heroin used in a mix,” the DEA said.
It is not clear exactly how xylazine is made. However, in many cases, the liquid xylazine is cooked into a powder, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. From there, it is mixed with other substances or compressed into pills.
The DEA believes that the mixing of xylazine with other drugs occurs once the dealers get hold of it.
“Use of xylazine in the United States may also follow the pattern seen in Puerto Rico and emerge as a drug of abuse on its own in the future, although it is unlikely to replace fentanyl or other opiates among illicit drug users,” the DEA said.
“It may also appeal to customers looking for a longer lasting high, as xylazine is described as having many of the same effects for users as opioids, but with a longer lasting effect than fentanyl alone.”
Federal authorities are now scrambling to find a solution to the xylazine crisis.
Earlier this month, the White House unveiled a plan to deal with the wave of xylazine drugs flooding the US. The Biden-Harris administration aims to reduce deaths from tranquilizers by 15 percent by 2025.
The ‘six pillars of action’ the administration plans to take to respond to the growing epidemic are to conduct more testing and collect data to implement an ‘evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and treatment’ plan that reduces supply.
The plan does not yet recommend restricting xylazine.
In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched a crackdown on the drug, issuing an import alert, which would stop shipments of xylazine and the ingredients used to make it.