Horse Tranquilizer Keeps Showing Up in Drug Overdoses

March 2, 2020

“If you only have $5 and want to stay high, it’s the best bang for your buck.”

s he does on most days, Kenzo, a twentysomething Dunkin’ Donuts manager, recently injected a $10 stamp bag of fentanyl, the opioid that can be 50 times stronger than heroin. Kenzo—the internet pseudonym of someone who spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of professional consequences—prefers plain-old heroin, but can’t get it anymore in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia where he buys drugs. Dealers only offer fentanyl-based mixes, he told The Daily Beast.

On this occasion, he instantly blacked out and fell into a “stress dream” in which his store was full of people and he didn’t have any doughnuts, he recalled. He woke up on the floor of his apartment to the sight of his girlfriend holding an empty canister of Narcan, the overdose reversal drug. His limbs were twisted, his lips a greyish blue.

“I had to figure out that she had Narcanned me,” Kenzo explained in an interview.

A 10-year opioid user, he had been revived by naloxone (the generic of the drug sold as Narcan) nasal spray before. This didn’t feel the same. “Narcan makes you instantly sick from withdrawal. The Narcan didn’t have any effect [this time],” he said. His senses were dulled and his mind hazy for the next few hours. “It was scary as hell,” he added.

It was the man’s first encounter with “tranq dope,” in this case a fentanyl mixture heavily laced with xylazine that law enforcement officials, experts, and users say is increasingly prevalent on the street. Xylazine, a common tranquilizer for animals, puts users in hours-long sleepy stupors—and a surge in its proliferation is just the latest wrinkle in America’s deadly opioid crisis.

Kenzo said he was aware dealers sold the stuff. In Kensington, a notorious open air drug market, they shout “tranq dope” from street corners, he recalled. He’s also read about it online on harm-reduction forums.

In fact, he said, he was actively trying to avoid it. “I’m not looking to get knocked out,” he explained. “I want to go to get high and not get sick and go to work.”

But in the post-heroin, fentanyl-soaked illicit drug market, one never knows what exactly they are buying.

In some areas of the U.S., they are increasingly buying xylazine. National data is not available because medical examiners don’t always test for xylazine. But in Philadelphia, the drug’s prevalence in overdose deaths has increased over the past three years, according to a DEA spokesperson.

Last year, two urban counties in Ohio issued public warnings about the distribution of xylazine-heavy drug batches. Public health officials near Dayton detected the daze-inducing mixture in one OD fatality toxicology report, and officials near Columbus linked xylazine to three fatalities.

When tallying up state OD fatalities for 2019, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, James Gill MD, found 71 cases where xylazine was present, of 1,200 deaths total. “It was surprising,” Gill told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think we saw it in any notable quantity before.”

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Related: China Is Using Fentanyl as ‘Chemical Warfare

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