The US government has called xylazine an “emerging threat” after the sedative started being mixed with opioids. What makes it so dangerous?
Xylazine is normally used to tranquilise large animals, but it’s found its way into humans because drug dealers have begun mixing it with the powerful opioid, fentanyl.
The combination of the two is known as “tranq dope” or “tranq”.
According to Dr. Caroline Copeland, director of the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, there’s a reason why the two are being mixed. Heroin gives users a much longer high than fentanyl.
“This cocktail together is trying to sort of recreate the experience of heroin,” she says.
It’s also cheaper.
Tranq has had a deadly effect in the United States. In 2021, 3,500 people suffered a xylazine-related overdose. Up from 102 in 2018.
Taking it is dangerous not just because of the risk of an overdose. It slows the body’s natural healing processes, meaning scratches or scrapes are more likely to become infected.
According to Dr. Copeland the drug can also “cause the blood vessels to constrict to such a huge level that the tissue is not getting any oxygen, any nutrients, so it will die.”
In April of this year, the Biden administration declared xylazine an emerging threat in the US.
A month later a study by Dr. Copeland’s team linked a death in the UK to the drug for the first time.
Karl Warburton was from Solihull in the West Midlands.
According to the coroner’s report he died at home in May 2022 and had a history of illicit drug use. He had been referred to addiction services on a number of occasions.
An examination of his body detected heroin, fentanyl and cocaine in his system, as well as xylazine.
In a paper published in Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine Dr Copeland’s team said his death “indicates the entry of xylazine into the UK drug supply.”
But experts are at pains to point out that the UK is unlikely to experience the same problems as the US, because America has a very specific drug issue linked to the use of prescription and illicit opioids.
What could drive more xylazine into the UK drugs market is a reduction in the supply of heroin. The Taliban has banned Afghanistan’s production of opium poppies, the main ingredient in heroin. The country is a huge supplier of the drug.
This week’s episode was written by Sara Weissel and mixed by Xavier Greenwood