CLEVELAND (WJW) – A surging illegal drug combination is claiming limbs and lives. The FDA-approved powerful veterinary sedative xylazine is being cut into illegal drugs and sold often without a person’s knowledge of the potentially deadly consequences.
Xylazine, the “zombie drug” or as it’s often called “tranq” is in Northeast Ohio and those on the front lines combating its use believe it could be here to stay.
“This is absolutely the worst that I’ve seen it,” said Carole Negus, Director of Nursing at Stella Maris. “It is definitely in Cleveland…people overdosing in our lobby trying to get them out of it. We just had somebody last week, actually, that we think was using it that we sent out via the squad because she was totally unresponsive.”
Stella Maris open since 1948 in Cleveland is one of the oldest drug treatment centers in the nation.
“People are still thinking that we’re in this opioid epidemic and really that’s not true,” said Negus. “What we’re really in is in the synthetic drug war, basically all the drugs are cut with everything.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert about xylazine and stated it is a deadlier threat than fentanyl. Xylazine is not approved for human use.
A 2022 DEA and Department of Justice report called the deadly drug mixture a growing threat and reported the number of xylazine-positive overdose deaths skyrocketed. The drug is reported in nearly every state.
The Northeast region of the country, where xylazine first appeared for this explicit use had the highest total for 2020 and 2021 increasing from 631 deaths to 1,281 deaths a year later. The South showed the highest percentage increase at 1,127 percent. The Midwest saw a 516 percent jump and the West region of the county experienced a 750 percent spike in deaths.
A spokesperson for the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office said 18 deaths were reported last year, all mixed with fentanyl. According to the DEA, a comprehensive count of xylazine deaths is widely underestimated.
“You can buy any of this stuff on the web, on the dark web,” said Negus. “You can buy things from China on the web. Just, you know, they’ll send it to you in the mail and it’s very hard to police the black market.”
Lawful sales of xylazine for veterinary use are available, however, it can be purchased online in liquid and powder form often with no requirements to prove legitimate need. The DEA report stated its low price from suppliers in China may increase profit for illegal drug traffickers who can then reduce the quantity of heroin or fentanyl typically used in the mixture.
The Biden administration officially designated fentanyl adulterated with xylazine as an emerging threat to the country, the classification marked a first in U.S. history.
Dr. Joan Papp, Medical Director at the Office of Opioid Safety at MetroHealth System said the hospital recently added xylazine test strips to kits given to patients. Wound care materials are also included because tranq can lead to the rotting of tissue that can cause amputations.
“We provide xylazine test strips directly to the patient,” said Papp. “The patient would use those test strips to test their own illicit drug supply.”
Reducing the risk of overdoses given naloxone is not effective at combating xylazine. As the drug continues to increase in popularity, Negus offered a warning to parents.
“If you have teenagers and high school kids or kids going to college things like that you need to make sure that they really have a clear understanding of what is out there,” said Negus. “They could very innocently be going to a party and think they’re just going to try a Percocet or something like that and that could be the last Percocet they ever take and boy what a way to lose your child.”
In late March, Ohio became one of the first states in the country to classify xylazine as a Schedule III controlled substance.
According to the Ohio Department of Health deaths involving xylazine increased every year since 2019.