Light Wave

U.S. News

Deaths Mount as Zombie Drug Xylazine Seeps Into Drug Trade

By Jake Beardslee · July 28, 2023

Skeletal formula of veterinary tranquilizer xylazine  Vaccinationist/Wikimedia Commons

A dangerous new drug is rapidly spreading across illicit drug supplies in communities nationwide. The veterinary tranquilizer xylazine, known as “tranq” on the streets, has been increasingly detected in opioids such as heroin and stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine.

Xylazine is being added to these common street drugs by dealers trying to juice up profits. But the drug’s powerful sedative effects are having devastating consequences for unsuspecting users.

“Xylazine was originally put into the supply to extend the euphoria and the high feeling for individuals consuming that dope. Nobody asked for this. Nobody knew that this was being adulterated into our supply,” said Sarah Laurel, Executive Director of Savage Sisters Recovery, which helps women with substance-use disorders in Philadelphia, in an interview with ABC News.

Philadelphia has been ground zero for the spread of xylazine, which has earned the nickname “zombie drug” due to its ability to leave users nearly catatonic. The crime-rattled city has seen a dramatic rise in overdoses involving the tranquilizer.

“Our overdose response has had to change significantly. Like we can’t just pop Narcan on people now. We have to do lots of rescue breathing because the tranq is coming,” said Stephanie Klipp, a volunteer nurse with Savage Sisters Recovery.

The White House has flagged xylazine as an emerging threat, with data showing xylazine-involved overdose deaths jumped more than 3,000% from 2018 to 2021. The drug has been detected in at least 48 states, according to the CDC.

Rural areas far from major cities are not immune. Diannee Carden runs the only needle exchange within hundreds of miles in Greenville, North Carolina - in honor of her late son who died of an opioid overdose. She says xylazine has recently begun appearing in user-submitted samples for drug testing.

“They’re saying, I don’t want that because they’re afraid of what the side effects are,” Carden told ABC.

Samples flooding into the Street Drug Analysis Lab at UNC Chapel Hill from across 29 states show just how far xylazine has permeated illicit supplies. Lab director Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta told NBC News the drug is already combining with stimulants like meth, signaling more dangerous changes ahead.

“I’ve been studying overdosing for 20 years… Every couple of years I was like, ‘Wow, this is as bad as it’s going to get, right?’ And then the overdoses went up another six fold, seven fold. As a society, we’ve had too many empty seats at Thanksgiving. We’ve had too many people missing from our lives. We have to admit that 100,000 people a year dying is not okay. We need to be open to new solutions, or else we’re just not going to get out of this,” Dasgupta warned.

Light Wave commentary

This alarming trend highlights the dangers of an unregulated drug supply and the need for harm-reduction services. As xylazine proliferates, communities must have access to drug checking, wound care, and addiction treatment to mitigate the fallout. Political leaders, meanwhile, must develop a new set of policies that strikes an enlightened balance between the compassion and deterrence.