Study Shows Animal Tranquilizer Poses A Threat to Street Drug Users

Fentanyl deaths are rising in the United States, yet it is not the only threat to Americans who participate in the street-drug scene. A new study from Brown University finds a high prevalence of xylazine in the local drug supply of Rhode Island.

Key takeaways:
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    A new study from Brown University finds xylazine present in different samples of the local drug supply in Rhode Island.
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    Xylazine is not approved for humans and can have severe side effects if received.
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    The U.S. continues to fight an ongoing battle of increased synthetic opioids in many common street drugs.

New research from testRI (Toxicological and Ethnographic Drug Surveillance Testing in Rhode Island) found 44% of its samples tested contained xylazine. The preliminary results published earlier this month covered 90 different samples to analyze Rhode Island’s local drug supply.

The study also found high amounts of illicit fentanyl in many of the samples, showing more signs of concern for those who use stimulants like crystal meth and cocaine.

Of all the samples tested, 47% were sold as fentanyl and 31% as stimulants featuring cocaine and methamphetamine. Seven samples (8%) were sold as pressed pills. Out of the 28 stimulant samples, 11 contained opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol along with three samples containing xylazine.

Although it is a small sample size, the research proves that the local drug supply landscape is changing.

What is xylazine?

Xylazine is not approved for human use and is a non-opioid veterinary tranquilizer. It is only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a sedative and pain reliever for animals. Xylazine has been studied for human use, but clinical trials failed to develop due to its severe hypotension and central nervous system depressant effects.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, xylazine is a major factor in the increasing number of overdose deaths in the northeastern region of the U.S. Data shows from 2015 to 2020, xylazine-involved deaths increased by 24% in Pennsylvania. Also,19% of drug overdose deaths in Maryland involved xylazine in 2021, and 10% of Rhode Island’s neighbor, Connecticut, in 2020.

The FDA issued a warning to health care professionals on November 8, 2022 of xylazine in illicit drugs. The FDA highlights xylazine is undetectable to standard toxicology screenings, and alternate analytical techniques are necessary to detect it when an illicit drug overdose occurs.

Also, the FDA found the drug naloxone to be ineffective when treating patients suffering from an overdose featuring xylazine. Xylazine is commonly referred to as “tranq” and is a central nervous system depressant that can include severe side effects.

Potential side effects of xylazine in dosages from 30 to 4,600 ng/mL include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Disorientation
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma
  • Respiratory depression

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says that fatality cases have occurred in individuals receiving up to 16,000 ng/mL of xylazine.

What is naloxone?

The FDA approved naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses. It is an opioid antagonist and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids, such as heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. Naloxone can be administered into the nose, muscles, under the skin, or through the veins.

Those who receive naloxone can vary. Patients who are on opioid medication may be required to have naloxone if they are taking high doses of opioids for long-term management of chronic pain, taking long-term opioid medication, or receiving rotating opioid medication procedures. Also, patients who have been released from emergency medical care following an opioid scare are also contenders for naloxone.

Side effects of naloxone:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or irritable
  • Body aches
  • Dizziness or weakness
  • Diarrhea, stomach issues, or nausea
  • Fever or chills
  • Sneezing or runny nose

Drug overdose deaths grow in the U.S.

In 2020, over 56,000 Americans died from overdoses featuring synthetic opioids like fentanyl, representing a 56% increase from 2019. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

A major concern over the sale of street drugs containing xylazine, fentanyl, or other synthetic opioids is their easy access. Last week, Paul DelPonte, Executive Director of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding Snapchat and other social media companies' role in the sale of fentanyl.

Brown suggests to those who use stimulants such as crystal meth or cocaine to test the drug with fentanyl test strips, have naloxone on hand, don’t overdo it, and don’t do drugs without company.


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