Animal tranquilizer being added to fentanyl, increasing overdose deaths

Published: May. 30, 2023 at 6:50 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Tracey Mccann has been clean and sober for 9 months and hopes to inspire others who have substance use disorder to get into treatment with her hopeful message.

“It’s possible to get clean,” she said.

Mccann is still suffering the physical scars from an emerging threat tied to the opioid crisis. Increasingly, drug dealers are cutting fentanyl with an animal sedative. It’s called xylazine and has the nicknames “tranq” and “zombie drug.”

Colin Dickey is the assistant special agent in charge of the D.E.A.’s St. Louis office. He said the vast majority of fentanyl users don’t know xylazine has been added to it. He said drug dealers use it to increase profits.

“People can buy it online, so it’s easy to access. It’s not a controlled substance through the controlled substances act on the federal level. And it’s much cheaper,” said Dickey.

He said xylazine sells for $6 to $20 a kilo. Fentanyl sells for between $40-45,000 a kilo.

According to the CDC, more than 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. between August 2021 and August 2022. And adding xylazine to fentanyl increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

In March, the DEA issued a public safety alert.

“We can’t continue to lose lives at this pace like we are,” said Dickey.

The St. Charles County Ambulance District first encountered an overdose death tied to Xylazine in 2021, and the number of deaths has steadily increased. Deputy Chief Brandon Jones said users don’t show the same symptoms as other overdose patients and don’t respond when naloxone, an opioid-overdose reversing drug, is administered.

“We’re seeing their heart rate drop real low which isn’t an indication of an opiate overdose. We’re seeing their blood pressure fall real low, profusely sweating,” said Jones.

According to the Regional Medical Examiner, the number of xylazine-involved deaths in St. Charles County numbered six in 2021, 13 in 2022 and 7 in the first three months of 2023.

The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s office reports 15 overdose deaths in 2021 associated with xylazine. In 2022 it recorded 45 deaths and 8 in the first quarter of 2023.

Use of xylazine can constrict blood vessels in the arms and lead to necrotic tissue. Mccann has scars on her arms from dead skin tissue.

“I would be like, ‘Oh my gosh my arms are going to melt off,’” said Mccann.

Withdrawal symptoms from xylazine are more severe than heroin and may include chest pains and seizures.

Mccann wants to warn those using illicit fentanyl that it might have xylazine in it and pose a greater danger to their safety. But she also wants them to have hope that it’s possible to get clean.

She created a Facebook page titled “From Tranq to Tranquility” to tell her story and hopefully inspire others to get into treatment.