The Biden administration’s drug czar on Wednesday announced that illicit fentanyl spiked with the animal tranquilizer xylazine is an “emerging threat,” a designation that will allow the federal government to marshal resources to counteract the street drug combination found in most states.
It’s the first time the United States has declared a drug such a threat, a category enabled by a 2018 federal bill, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Gupta said his office will seek $11 million to help create a strategy to stop its spread, develop an antidote and research how it has gotten into the drug supply.
Most recently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public health alert, reporting that the drug had spread to 48 states. And Congress wants to make xylazine a controlled substance: Last month, lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to help the DEA and local law enforcement “get xylazine off our streets,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.
LATEST: How xylazine makes it harder to slow overdose deaths
Known as the street drug “tranq,” “tranq dope” or “zombie heroin,” xylazine is dangerous because it depresses breathing, lengthens overdoses and causes skin ulcers and sores that last for months.
In 2020, the drug was detected in about 800 drug deaths in the U.S., most of them in the Northeast. By 2021, it was present in more than 3,000 fatalities, with the most in the South, according to a report last year from the DEA.
Gupta said the drug is increasingly circulating in the South and West. Fatal overdoses involving the drug are up more than 1,000% and 750% in those regions, respectively.
“I’m deeply concerned about what this threat means for the nation,” Gupta said.
What is xylazine used for?
Xylazine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for veterinary use in 1972, Gupta said. It has been showing up in supplies of illicit drugs used by humans in major quantities in only the past several years.
Xylazine’s side effects include wounds and skin infections
In regions where xylazine is widely circulated, Gupta said, people suffer from the drug’s ill effects. Users develop skin ulcers and infection that can require limb amputations. Some develop potentially life-threatening sepsis and require care in a hospital’s intensive care unit.
“We cannot ignore what we’re seeing, and we must act, and act now,” Gupta said.
Fentanyl fight: Why Congress is cracking down on this animal tranquilizer
Xylazine basics: What to know about the animal tranquilizer
US to allocate funding to support xylazine antidote, research
Gupta said President Joe Biden’s budget seeks $11 million for his office to counteract emerging threats such as xylazine. It is crucial to develop a point-of-care test and create a federal dashboard that will allow public health and others to track the drug, he said.
Gupta also called for researchers to develop an antidote for xylazine and learn more about medical treatments. He also said public health must apply harm reduction strategies and best practices to encourage users to seek recovery from street drugs that contain xylazine.
More: Overdose reversal drug Narcan doesn’t against xylazine
The drug is part of a worsening overdose epidemic in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 107,000 people died from overdoses in the 12 months that ended Oct. 31, 2022. Most of those deaths involve the synthetic opioid fentanyl, often illicitly manufactured in clandestine labs and sold alone or in combination with other drugs such as xylazine.
Gupta said the nation’s drug supply is increasingly tainted with synthetic drugs that must be closely monitored, similar to how researchers tract emerging viruses or other health threats.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Ken Alltucker is on Twitter at @kalltucker, or can be emailed at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Xylazine tranquilizer mixed with fentanyl labeled ’emerging threat’