Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer known to exacerbate drug overdoses, has been found in Los Angeles County recently prompting a warning from local health officials regarding the use of illegal substances.
The drug is often combined with the already deadly fentanyl to create a drug cocktail that mirrors heroin but is resistant to current overdose reversal methods and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued a warning over its presence this week after the Sheriff’s department found xylazine in limited quantities of illicit drugs.
“The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health stresses that these findings highlight that the illicit drug supply in Los Angeles County remains dangerous and contains substances such as xylazine that can increase overdose deaths. People who are obtaining these drugs may not be aware that xylazine is present,” said the statement.
County health officials previously issued a warning in March of this year over the increased risk of overdose and death associated with xylazine after the drug was found in increasing quantities in the state.
SMPD Lt. Erika Aklufi said backlogs in toxicology testing at the County level mean the City won’t have information about the presence of xylazine in local overdose deaths for a while.
“But we acknowledge that we are not immune from the influences of our surrounding cities or of the county at large—if LASO is finding it, it will be affecting our population as well,” she said.
Xylazine can cause severe skin wounds and while it’s increasingly found in overdose cases, its role in those deaths is still unclear as it’s usually part of a drug cocktail.
In almost all cases, xylazine — a drug for sedating horses and other animals — is added to fentanyl, the potent opioid that can be lethal even in small amounts. Some users say the combination, dubbed “tranq” or “tranq dope,” gives a longer-lasting high, more like heroin, which has largely been replaced by fentanyl in U.S. drug markets.
According to the CDC, studies from different regions have shown a substantial rise in xylazine involvement in drug overdose deaths. For example, in 10 US cities, xylazine’s role increased from less than 1% in 2015 to nearly 7% in 2020. In Maryland, around 80% of opioid-containing drug samples from syringe service programs contained xylazine between 2021 and 2022. In Philadelphia, xylazine was detected in 31% of heroin and/or fentanyl overdose deaths in 2019. A recent CDC study revealed that the monthly percentage of deaths involving illegally made fentanyl (IMF) with detected xylazine increased from 3% in January 2019 to 11% in June 2022 across 20 states and Washington D.C. In the Northeastern US, xylazine was detected in a higher percentage of IMF-related deaths during January 2021–June 2022 in 31 states and Washington D.C.
Like other cutting agents, xylazine benefits dealers: It’s often cheaper and easier to get than fentanyl. Chinese websites sell a kilogram for $6 to $20, no prescription required. Chemicals used to produce fentanyl can cost $75 or more per kilogram.
Xylazine’s effects are easy to spot: users experience a lethargic, trance-like state and sometimes black out, exposing themselves to robbery or assault.
U.S. regulators approved xylazine in 1971 to sedate animals for surgery, dental procedures and handling purposes. In humans, the drug can cause breathing and heart rates to drop. It’s also linked to severe skin ulcers and abscesses, which can lead to infections, rotting tissue and amputations. Experts disagree on the exact cause of the wounds, which are much deeper than those seen with other injectable drugs.
Naloxone (sold as Narcan), a medication used to revive people who have stopped breathing, doesn’t reverse the effects of xylazine.
“We have recorded dozens of Narcan reversals over the past 18 months since we have been deploying it in the field; it remains to be seen if xylazine in our community will temper the positive outcomes Narcan has brought about,” said Aklufi.
Federal agencies like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, CDC and FDA have all issued warnings about fentanyl mixed with xylazine recently.
“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”
According to the CDC, 107,735 Americans died between August 2021 and August 2022 from drug poisonings, with 66 percent of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
While the dangers of xylazine were at the forefront of the health warnings, it was only found in a very small number of tested drugs. Methamphetamine was the most commonly found drug.
The Sheriff’s department organized a three-month pilot program to track xylazine detected in controlled substances submitted to its Crime Lab. During that time, they analyzed a total of 4,608 controlled substance samples and detected xylazine in a total of 13 samples, resulting in an overall rate of 0.003%. It was noted that all samples that contained xylazine also contained fentanyl.
Of the 320 samples found to contain fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, 13 had an indication of xylazine, resulting in 4% of all substances with fentanyl also having xylazine. However, among all tests methamphetamine was the most prominent substance and was found in nearly 3,000 samples.
The samples were from all over the county and were taken from seizures that ranged from as small as a single tablet to a kilo of drugs.
“Given the information released today, I’m deeply concerned about the rising prevalence of the ‘Tranq’ mixture, often called the ‘Zombie drug’,” said Los Angeles Councilwoman Traci Park.
“In May, I introduced a motion advocating for enhanced communication and information sharing between our first responders, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and City personnel regularly encountering these substances. I cannot stress enough the urgency of addressing this issue, especially given its potential impact on our most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and our youth. We must proactively tackle this challenge to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities.”
Public Health said the safest action is to avoid illegal drugs altogether but they also recommend carrying naloxone, despite its inability to address xylazine, because it can reverse fentanyl overdoses and may still have a lifesaving impact given the prevalence of the two drugs to be found together.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.