Congress is sounding the alarm over “tranq,” an animal sedative that is being mixed with fentanyl with alarming frequency and worsening the U.S. overdose crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Thursday urged the Drug Enforcement Administration to direct more dollars and manpower to local authorities who are combatting xylazine, the formal name for tranq. He wants to see diversion-control teams across the country to combat the drug and said he will push for increased funding at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to deal with xylazine.
Veterinarians and ranchers use xylazine as a sedative, but drug users are combining it with synthetic opioids to extend the feeling of euphoria. It also increases the risk of overdose and death and can cause nasty skin abscesses and ulcers that can require amputations.
“This is turning the opioid crisis into a nightmare,” said Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Xylazine. It’s a deadly, skin-rotting zombie drug that is bringing a horrific wave of overdoses across the country and is spreading further.”
Lawmakers and experts said the drug is not subject to the Controlled Substances Act, so there is poor tracking and monitoring of its importation and use. Toxicology labs do not test for it regularly, so the trajectory of the problem remains murky.
Mr. Schumer’s push to combat tranq follows a bipartisan push this week to declare xylazine an emerging threat and place it on the Schedule III list of drugs to spur better tracking and enforcement of penalties for illicit use.
“This bill recognizes the dangers posed by the increasing abuse of animal tranquilizers by drug traffickers and provides new tools to combat this deadly trend. It also ensures that folks like veterinarians, ranchers and cattlemen can continue to access these drugs for bona fide animal treatment,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and lead sponsor of the bill with Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
The DEA says 23% of the fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl-laced pills that agents seized in 2022 contained xylazine. Regulators at the Food and Drug Administration recently announced steps to scrutinize imports of the drug and empower staff to intercept suspicious shipments.
U.S. leaders say tranq swamped the Northeast in recent years but then blanketed the nation.
More than 100,000 Americans are dying each year from drug overdoses. The deaths are driven by the prevalence of fentanyl, which is often made by Mexican cartels using Chinese chemicals. Tranq is making that underlying problem worse.
“When a new drug rears its ugly head, if you don’t nip it in the bud it gets its tentacles deep in our society and it takes years, sometimes decades, to make it go away,” Mr. Schumer said.
Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who tracks the overdose crisis, said xylazine can cause skin damage even if the injection needle is clean.
Chronic use narrows the blood vessels that provide oxygen to the skin, Mr. Humphreys said. And without sufficient oxygen, the skin is susceptible to ulcers, abscesses, and infection.
“It causes severe wounds to the skin, sometimes all the way to the bone,” Mr. Schumer said. “It creates a lot of dead tissue, there are breathing and heart rate issues and the infections from these wounds can often lead to people even losing their limbs. So it’s a terrifying drug.”
Complicating matters, tranq is not an opioid, so overdose-reversing drugs like naloxone are not effective against it.
“There’s no antidote,” Mr. Schumer said.
Experts still recommend administering naloxone, saying there is no downside to attempting to resuscitate someone who is experiencing a suspected overdose. The FDA this week moved to make a nasal spray version, NARCAN, available over-the-counter and without a prescription.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, convened the Evolving and Emerging Threats Committee earlier this year to debate whether it should formally designate xylazine as an emerging threat. The designation, which could come soon, would spur awareness and the development of sorely lacking treatments.
“Given the urgency of the moment, ONDCP is asking drug control program agencies like DEA, FDA, and SAMHSA to raise awareness about emerging issues related to fentanyl adulterated with xylazine,” Dr. Gupta said Thursday. “At the same time, the administration is quickly identifying the real, concrete, whole-of-government steps we need to take to prevent, test, regulate and otherwise fully address this threat.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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