- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2023

Health officials in San Francisco are sounding the alarm about an animal tranquilizer that is being mixed into illegal drugs after a handful of overdose victims were found to have the substance in their system.

Low levels of xylazine, a non-opioid veterinary tranquilizer known as “Tranq,” has been detected in the four people who recently died while using drugs, the San Francisco Department of Public Health said last week.

Xylazine is often mixed with fentanyl, heroin and other illegal drugs, officials said. The drug isn’t federally approved for human use.

San Francisco’s re-tested drug deaths last year for xylazine and has incorporated it into its surveillance testing in 2023.

“Because it’s not that common, it’s not routinely tested for,” Dr. Gary Tsai, the director of substance abuse prevention and control for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s possible that it’s more out there.”

San Francisco health officials said that the four xylazine victims died between mid-December and mid-January. Dr. Tsai said that he also knew of at last one such death in his county, in 2021.

Xylazine is known to be in the East Coast’s illegal-drug supply, but it now appears to be moving west.

The drug “can be smoked, snorted or injected. It causes severe skin ulcerations that spread and worsen quickly,” San Francisco health officials said. “Repeated xylazine injection has also been associated with severe, necrotic skin lesions often requiring advanced wound care. These wounds may occur in areas of the body away from the injection site.”       

Officials also said that the substance can cause excessive sleepiness and respiratory depression that mimic opioid overdoses and the effects of heroin, thus making it harder to detect xylazine.

Adding to the danger, according to Dr. Tsai, is that xylazine is immune to naloxone, the emergency drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

A Drug Enforcement Administration report from October said that xylazine is not listed as a controlled substance in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. Without that designation, it can fly under the radar of law enforcement agencies looking to crack down on illegal drugs.

“It may also attract customers looking for a longer high since xylazine is described as having many of the same effects for users as opioids, but with a longer-lasting effect than fentanyl alone,” the DEA report said.

Xylazine-positive overdose deaths skyrocketed nationwide between 2020 and 2021, according to the DEA. The biggest jump came in the southern states, where the substance was detected in 116 overdose deaths in 2020 before surging to 1,423 in 2021.

• Matt Delaney can be reached at mdelaney@washingtontimes.com.

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