New ‘tranq’ drug spreading through Puget Sound region

Feb 16, 2023, 5:13 PM | Updated: Feb 18, 2023, 4:56 pm

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Used syringes, collected by the staff of the Family and Medical Counselling Service Inc (FMCS), sit in a container inside the FMCS van. (Photo by Agnes BUN/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by Agnes BUN/AFP via Getty Images)

A new drug is spreading through the Seattle area that is even more dangerous than pure fentanyl.

People are mixing fentanyl with xylazine, a tranquilizer used on large animals like horses and elephants, to create a mixture known as tranq.

Tranq is especially lethal because both xylazine and fentanyl are downers, which cause the heart to beat at a dangerously slow rate. In minutes, a person can slip into a coma and die.

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But while naloxone — more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan — can reverse an overdose caused by fentanyl or other opioids, it is powerless against a tranq overdose.

“You can’t do that with xylazine because it’s a tranquilizer — it’s not an opiate derivative,” explained Rochelle Long, a mental health professional with the Marysville Police Department.

Right now, there is no known antidote for a tranq overdose.

Besides leading to lethal overdose, tranq has other alarming side effects, such as tissue death; the poison can cause a person’s flesh to literally rot away in open sores while they are still alive.

“We’ve started to see some people losing a finger, for example,” Long said, adding, “People don’t know how they’re losing parts of their skin or limbs.”

Not everyone who takes tranq does so knowingly. Just as some people buy what they believe are pain pills — that they do not realize are laced with fentanyl — people are buying fentanyl pills that they do not realize are laced with xylazine.

“This drug basically looks just like the fentanyl pills that are out there,” Long said.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration noted in a report that because xylazine is a legitimate drug used by veterinarians on animals, it can be purchased with relative ease online.

Xylazine first began spreading on the East Coast before making its way west.

“It’s hitting the West Coast now … It’s also been up in Vancouver, B.C., hitting them pretty hard as well,” Long said. “So now we’re getting hit really hard.”

While tranq overdoses are increasing here in the Puget Sound region, xylazine still remains present in only a small percentage of overdose deaths overall. Caleb Banta-Green, acting professor with UW’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute, told KIRO Newsradio in an email that xylazine was detected in fewer than 1% of fentanyl overdose deaths in 2021 and 2022 in Washington.

“Xylazine is a minor issue right now in terms of [number of overdoses], we are remaining vigilant,” Banta-Green wrote. “Fentanyl is a major issue and we need to be supporting people getting on buprenorphine and methadone today to support recovery and reduce mortality.”

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office found xylazine in four overdose deaths of 732 in 2020, and seven overdose deaths of 1,018 in 2021.

However, the DOJ’s report notes that because xylazine is not a controlled substance, it is not always tested for, so it is likely that we do not know the full extent of deaths from tranq overdose.

“The presence of xylazine in illicit drug combinations and its detection in fatal overdoses may be more widespread than reported as a number of jurisdictions across the country may not include xylazine in forensic laboratory or toxicology testing,” the report states.

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