Tranq-contaminated Fentanyl Now in 48 States, DEA Warns

Alicia Ault

March 22, 2023

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is warning the public about a sharp increase in trafficking in fentanyl mixed with the animal tranquilizer xylazine, stating that the agency has seized mixtures of the two drugs in 48 states.

The DEA warning comes on the heels of a US Food and Drug Administration announcement that it would begin more closely monitoring imports of the raw materials and bulk shipments of xylazine, also known as "tranq" and "zombie drug."

Xylazine was first approved by the FDA in 1972 as a sedative and analgesic for use only in animals, but is increasingly being detected in illicit street drugs, and is often mixed with fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

FDA warned in November that naloxone (Narcan) would not reverse xylazine-related overdoses because the tranquilizer is not an opioid. It does suppress respiration and repeated exposures may lead to dependence and withdrawal, said the agency. Users are also experiencing severe necrosis at injection sites.

"Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier," said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in a statement. "The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine," she said.

Xylazine use has spread quickly, from its start in the Philadelphia area to the Northeast, the South, and, most recently the West.

Citing data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the DEA said that 66% of the 107,735 overdose deaths for the year ending August 2022 involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The DEA said that the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel in Mexico, using chemicals sourced from China, are primarily responsible for trafficking fentanyl in the US.

Alicia Ault is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA and You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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