New veterinary tranquilizer appears in illicit drug supply

Apr 14, 2022

According to a recent analysis article published by CNN Health, one of the latest concerning changes in the illicit drug market across the U.S. and Canada has been the appearance of xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer also referred to as “tranq” or “tranq dope.”

Xylazine is used by veterinarians to sedate large animals, and acts as a nervous system depressant, also causing blurred vision, disorientation, dizziness, and drowsiness. In addition, xylazine is not approved for human use, and acts as a potent sedative, increasing the risk of overdose when combined with opioids, such as fentanyl. Furthermore, unlike fentanyl, xylazine does not respond to the opioid antidote naloxone.

According to the results of a study examining overdose deaths in Philadelphia, xylazine was linked to 2% of opioid-related overdose deaths in Philadelphia. However, by 2019, it was involved in 1 in 3 opioid-related fatal overdoses in the city. Recent research shows that xylazine was involved in 0.36% of overdose deaths in 2015, but by 2020, it was linked to 6.7% of overdose deaths, with the highest percentages detected in Philadelphia, Maryland, and Connecticut. Importantly, fentanyl was also used in 98% of all xylazine-related deaths examined in the study.

“It seems like xylazine is following fentanyl’s footsteps,” said Dr. Joseph Friedman, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of the research study in his interview with CNN Health. “Just like fentanyl did 10 years earlier, everywhere it lands, it’s growing exponentially. This time 10 years ago, there was a missed opportunity to effectively respond to fentanyl. And hopefully we can do a better job this time around.”

In 2020, xylazine was first detected in Toronto by the city’s drug checking service, and was found in 7.2% of the samples tested and expected to contain fentanyl. Since then, it has also been detected in the unregulated drug supply across other Canadian provinces, including Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

The opioid crisis has been growing in Canada, reaching record numbers of overdose deaths during the pandemic. According to data reported by Health Canada, during the first year of the pandemic, there was a 95% increase in apparent opioid toxicity deaths compared to the year before. According to researchers and health experts, the North American overdose crisis is driven in part by the presence of dangerous psychoactive adulterants in illicit and unregulated drug supply.

“When you look at each individual death record, when you look at the actual files and the actual chemical analysis, you see other peaks in there … which are definitely not fentanyl and are these other contaminants that are in the drug supply,” Dr. Naburan Dasgupta, an epidemiologist and senior scientist at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told CNN News.