The White House unveiled a plan to tackle the growing presence of the powerful animal sedative xylazine, known as ‘tranq,’ in the United States drug supply.
The White House drug control office came out Tuesday morning with a six-point plan previewing an increased effort to scale research and testing on the “zombie drug” that leaves users with rotting flesh — which sometimes requires amputation.
The administration didn’t recommend restrictions on the medication with pushback from veterinarians, farmers, and other professions that regularly use the drug in their field.
Xylazine is also commonly mixed with fentanyl and other illicit opioids.
Federal officials hope the new strategy will reduce xylazine-related overdose deaths by 2025 by 15 percent. However, the drug is already causing thousands of deaths. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of Americans killed by flesh-rotting street drugs has soared over 15-fold in the past three years.
The report said monthly overdose deaths involving xylazine rose from 12 in January 2019 to 188 in June 2022.
However, officials only looked at 20 states, including Washington, D.C., meaning the actual number involving the animal tranquilizer is bound to be much higher.
Xylazine is frequently mixed with fentanyl. Synthetic opioids other than methadone — mostly fentanyl — caused 70,601 overdose deaths in 2021, which means fentanyl and tranq yearly deaths combined are already around 71,000.
According to the DEA, in 2020, there were 808 reported drug overdoses, and xylazine played a role. In 2021, the figure skyrocketed to 3,089.
Some states have already scheduled the drug, which means they classify it as having a “high potential for abuse or addiction,” the White House is considering adding the sedative to the federal drugs schedule.
The move would make xylazine subject to regulatory restrictions similar to amphetamines and opioids.
Congress introduced several bills to restrict the use of xylazine without limiting its legitimate use for sedating sheep, horses, or other animals.
The “six pillars of action” the administration plans to take to respond to the growing epidemic is conducting more data collection and testing to roll out an “evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, and treatment” plant to reduce the supply.
Additionally, the White House wants to look at scheduling the drug and doing more research on how to prevent it from making it to the streets. The plan does not yet recommend restricting xylazine.
However, if it did, Dr. Katharine Neill Harris, fellow in drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said restricting xylazine will not reduce deaths.
“Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is also restricted, and yet there were around 70,000 deaths involving that death last year. Increasing penalties does not reduce the drug supply,” explained Harris.
She said the population that is currently most vulnerable to xylazine exposure are those who are dependent on opioids, so the Biden administration should help them avoid xylazine-laced opioids by “giving them a safer alternative, like the FDA-approved opioid use disorder medication buprenorphine.”
“Legal, regulatory, and financial barriers continue to be an obstacle to expanding access to this medication,” added Harris.
She continued, “The White House plan is a start, but they need the assistance of state and local authorities in reaching out to communities where xylazine is highly prevalent. For example, test strips to detect xylazine are commercially available, but many states have not legalized these, creating an obstacle to their use.”
In April, the White House called the presence of xylazine-laced fentanyl an “emerging threat” as illicit drugs laced with fentanyl are already killing Americans at a record-high rate.
Bulk of the White House plan focuses on improving how the drug is tracked and treated
The bulk of the White House plan focuses on improving how health professionals track and treat the drug.
It does not confront the chaos at the southern U.S. border, where fentanyl has been pouring across the border for years unchecked.
Some health departments and medical examiners regularly detect xylazine in overdose victims and whatever drug paraphernalia is collected from the deceased.
However, testing has been inconsistent, and a standardized approach is needed to understand the true scope, impact, and potential trajectory of the spread of the drug.
So far, figures suggest the use of tranq has spiked dramatically in recent years.
Xylazine, when used with other illicit drugs, enhances the effects of fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin.
The White House plans to tackle the tranq crisis by developing rapid tests for community workers and hospital staff who treat overdose patients.