First responders and federal agencies are warning of a deadly new narcotic combination using an animal tranquilizer that is easily obtained through legal purchase, oftentimes through labs located in China. Commonly called “tranq”, fentanyl cut with Xylazine is one of the latest developments in America’s opioid crisis. Xylazine is a tranquilizer meant for veterinary use, but is becoming increasingly common as a cutting agent in illicit narcotics.
Until recent crackdowns, purchase and import of the drug were not regulated. Since 2016, overdoses involving the tranquilizer have risen from 2% to over 30%. Narcotics mixed with Xylazine carry a greater risk of adverse side effects and overdoses, and since Xylazine is not an opiate, Narcan is ineffective at treating overdoses involving the drug. Despite the risks, there is an increased demand for tranq among drug users.
The addition of Xylazine to fentanyl can lead to a longer lasting high, meaning users don’t need to purchase or dose the drug as frequently as they would with other types of fentanyl or heroin. The ease with which it can be legally purchased and imported, as well as increased street demand, have contributed to a significant rise in tranq overdoses.
Easily Purchased from Chinese Labs
While the FDA has said it will begin detaining suspicious shipments of Xylazine, its purchase and import is still legal. Until recently, shipments of Xylazine were not monitored, and could be easily and cheaply purchased online from places like Chinese suppliers. Chinese labs have been linked to the opioid crisis for years by supplying drug cartels with precursor chemicals needed to manufacture fentanyl and its analogs. So much so that Wuhan, China has been called the “fentanyl capital of the world”.
Many of these labs also manufacture and sell Novel Psychedelic Substances and steroids, which are also in high demand on the black market. Strike Source investigations found several labs advertising the sale of Xylazine, some of which advertised guaranteed delivery to the US and Mexico. One lab, located in Wuhan, also advertised the sale of precursor chemicals used to make synthetic cannabinoids. Contact information included a number for Wickr, an encrypted messaging app due to shut down later this year due to rampant criminal content such as narcotics sales. Instructions for how to convert precursors to illicit substances were also easily found online. Another lab advertised the sale of Bromazolam, a benzodiazepine also commonly used by Drug Trafficking Organizations to mix with fentanyl. The sale and purchase of some of these substances is not yet illegal in the US, making them an easy option for DTOs looking to cut their product. Even if the US cracks down on Xylazine and other chemical shipments from these labs, they may still be able to ship to Mexico, allowing fentanyl manufacturers easy access to continue making “tranq dope” and other narcotics.
While Xylazine has been studied in animals such as dogs and horses, there is limited data on human consumption. Therapeutic, toxic, and lethal concentrations have not yet been established in humans because of the significant overlap of fatal and nonfatal doses which have been reported. Clinical trials of Xylazine in humans were terminated due to its severe effects as a central nervous system depressant. Drug users who use Xylazine mixed with other narcotics are at a much higher risk of severe side effects, dependence, and withdrawal. Xylazine alone can cause physical dependence, and opioid users hooked on tranq can have a much more difficult time getting clean. One of the more shocking side effects of the drug is that users who inject tranq can develop necrotic tissue, and face amputations at a much faster and higher rate than other drug users. The prevalence of these necrotic wounds have led to many calling tranq “the zombie drug”, due to users’ skin conditions and catatonic state when hooked on the drug. Politicians, law enforcement, and medical experts are all concerned about the rise of tranq and agree that something must be done to combat its use. However, those engaged in community outreach programs designed to help addicts are concerned about the crackdown. They believe that users who have become accustomed to the powerful combination will be forced to take larger amounts of weaker narcotics in attempts to replicate the high they received from tranq, thus increasing their risk of overdose. The withdrawal is also generally much worse than withdrawal from opiates alone. Community advocates and hospital workers fear an influx of patients with severe withdrawal symptoms if tranq suddenly disappeared from the streets.
The DEA and FDA are cracking down on the purchase and importation of Xylazine in the US, but the drug may still be available for shipment to Mexico. While both the US and China have put restrictions in place on the manufacture, sale, and purchase of chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl, hundreds of alternatives still exist and are readily available for purchase online. Deaths from drug overdoses have increased every year since 1999, with synthetic opioids being the largest contributor by a significant margin. Collaboration with Mexico and China will be crucial in combating the growing opioid epidemic due to their role in the supply chain. This could prove difficult for several reasons; rising tensions between the US and China, hostility between the US and Mexico regarding DTO’s and border policies, and Mexico talking BRICS membership with China.