The ‘zombie drug’ has claimed a life in Western Washington

Apr 5, 2024, 6:41 PM | Updated: Apr 7, 2024, 4:18 pm

Image: A homeless man, 24, holds a piece of aluminum foil he used to smoke fentanyl in Seattle on M...

A homeless man, 24, holds a piece of aluminum foil he used to smoke fentanyl in Seattle on March 13, 2022. (Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)

(Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)

Whatcom County is reporting its first death from the powerful, large animal tranquilizer Xylazine. Its nicknames include “tranq” and “zombie drug” because of its stupor-inducing and flesh-rotting effects.

Toxicology results showed the individual who died had also taken fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Authorities describe that person as an adult, a local resident, but provided few other details.

“We are deeply saddened by the first known Xylazine-related overdose death of a Whatcom County resident,” an official said on the county’s website.

“No one should die of an overdose and our hearts go out to the family and friends of this person.”

Graphic: Facing Fentanyl: Hear the Voices of People Hurting. A five-part series by KIRO Newsradio's Heather Bosch.

What to know about Xylazine

Xylazine, also called tranq, is a powerful animal tranquilizer and is never safe for people. Whatcom County’s civic alert reminded the public Xylazine is never safe for people. It reduces brain activity and dangerously reduces a person’s breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. In addition, it can cause severe skin wounds that are difficult to heal. These wounds can occur anywhere on the body, not just at injection sites.

A 2022 joint report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) added that people who inject xylazine or drug mixtures with xylazine “often develop soft tissue injuries that can lead to necrotic tissue and may result in amputation at rates higher than those who inject other drugs without xylazine.” (A PDF of that report can be viewed here.)

That joint report also stated users may develop a physical dependence to xylazine, with some users reporting the withdrawal symptoms as, or even more, severe than from heroin or methadone. Symptoms include sharp chest pains and seizures.

Illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl can be mixed with xylazine, either to enhance drug effects or increase street value by increasing their weight, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated on its website.

People who use illegal drugs may not be aware of the presence of xylazine, the DEA stated in a separate statement on its website. The agency has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 states, and the DEA laboratory system reported that approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA in 2022 contained xylazine.

Revisiting previous actions: Oregon ends decriminalization of drugs, joins Washington in pushing jail or treatment

If you think someone is having an overdosing on Xylazine

Whatcom County explained that since Xylazine is not an opioid naloxone spray (brand names are Kloxxado or Narcan) will not work to reverse it. However, naloxone should still be given if an overdose is suspected because it will reverse fentanyl’s effects.

If the person is not breathing or is taking irregular breaths, someone present should provide rescue breaths if it can be done safely.

For over a year Whatcom County officials have suspected that Xylazine may be circulating and first issued a warning about this drug in March 2023.

The Medical Examiner’s Office has been testing all suspected overdose deaths for Xylazine since the summer of 2022. This is the first time that it has been detected in an overdose death in Whatcom County.

Contributing: Bill Kaczaraba and Steve Coogan, MyNorthwest

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of her stories here. Follow Heather on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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The ‘zombie drug’ has claimed a life in Western Washington