An alarming epidemic is sweeping across the United States as a mass-produced animal tranquilizer from China floods the illicit drug market. Known as ‘tranq’ or xylazine, this potent drug has earned the moniker of the ‘zombie drug’ due to its devastating effects on users, leaving them in a lifeless, hunched-over state and causing their bodies to develop horrifying, flesh-rotting wounds.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has described this deadly combination of xylazine and other drugs, particularly fentanyl, as “the deadliest threat our country has ever faced.” The DEA is deeply concerned for multiple reasons, including the drug’s extremely low cost – as low as $1 per kilogram on Chinese online pharmacies – and its addictive properties, similar to opioids.
However, xylazine’s sinister side goes beyond addiction. It induces a range of gruesome side effects, such as skin decay and a zombified state known as the ‘dope lean.’ What makes it even more dangerous is that there is no known antidote for xylazine overdoses, making it a death sentence for those who take too much.
Xylazine was first widely used in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s as a result of it being shipped from China. By 2006, it had landed in the continental US
Originally developed as an animal tranquilizer for veterinary use in the 1960s, xylazine quickly became a popular cutting agent among drug dealers in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s. By adding xylazine to drugs like heroin and cocaine, dealers could stretch their supply and maximize profits. Xylazine was considerably cheaper than fentanyl and cocaine, making it an attractive choice.
Xylazine’s longer duration of action compared to other drugs gave users the illusion of a prolonged high. It also enhanced the euphoric effects of other substances. The drug’s popularity grew to the point that it surpassed heroin and cocaine as the drug of choice among users in Puerto Rico.
By 2006, xylazine had made its way to the continental US, initially appearing sporadically before steadily increasing in prevalence throughout the mid-2010s. Xylazine’s availability soared due to its industrial-level production in Chinese labs and easy accessibility through online marketplaces, even though there have been efforts to restrict its distribution.
Cases of xylazine-related incidents have skyrocketed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a drastic increase in monthly overdose deaths involving xylazine, jumping from 12 in January 2019 to 188 in June 2022. Additionally, fentanyl overdoses involving xylazine rose by 276 percent in just over three years.
Online Chinese pharmacies list xylazine powder for as little as $1 per kilogram. The average cost, the DEA states, is about $6-$20 per kilogram
The spread of xylazine is not limited to specific regions. According to the DEA, illicit xylazine has been found in 48 out of 50 states. The number of recorded drug overdoses involving xylazine surged from 808 in 2020 to 3,089 in 2021. The southern region experienced the most significant increase, with a staggering 193 percent jump between 2020 and 2021.
While the DEA acknowledges that the true prevalence of xylazine usage is likely underestimated, it highlights the urgency of this crisis. Numerous states, including Philadelphia, Maryland, and Connecticut, have reported xylazine’s presence in a significant percentage of overdose deaths, showcasing the drug’s widespread impact.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) found monthly overdose deaths involving xylazine rose from 12 in January 2019 to 188 in June 2022. The report also found monthly fentanyl overdoses involving xylazine rose by 276 percent in just over three years
Xylazine depresses the central nervous system, causing users, such as those in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, to exhibit a zombie-like appearance
Xylazine’s mode of action targets adrenergic receptors in the brain, effectively slowing down brain activity and releasing stress hormones. This leads to pain reduction, stress relief, and a euphoric sensation similar to opioids. The drug is commonly injected but can also be consumed orally, smoked, or snorted.
Initial usage of xylazine may induce feelings of euphoria and calmness as the drug suppresses the release of stress hormones. However, prolonged use results in disorientation, confusion, shallow breathing, and even respiratory failure. Xylazine depresses the central nervous system, causing muscles to relax and organs to slow down, simulating a sleep-like state.
Due to xylazine’s mixed nature and inconsistent concentrations, it is challenging to gauge the amount taken during drug use. As federal authorities race to address this crisis, the White House has unveiled plans to combat tranq-related deaths by 15 percent by 2025. The administration’s strategy encompasses increased testing, data collection, evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, and treatment initiatives, aiming to reduce drug supply.
The fight against xylazine continues, as federal agencies like the FDA enforce stricter regulations on the drug’s importation and production. The quest to curb the alarming rise of the deadly zombie drug remains a top priority.