Local law-enforcement officers are warning the community to be aware of a new emerging drug trend.
Xylazine, a non-opioid veterinary tranquilizer not approved for human use, has been linked to an increasing number of overdose deaths nationwide in the evolving drug addiction and overdose crisis, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Last month, Orange County Sheriff John Mina hosted a press conference with Ashley Wright, assistant statewide prosecutor, and Capt. Darryl Blanford, sector four commander.
Mina and members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office narcotics squad announced the dismantling of a drug trafficking organization in Orange County and discussed the emerging threat to public safety and public health.
“About 80% of the fentanyl our drug agents have seized or bought undercover contained xylazine,” the OCSO said in a social media post. “We can’t stress how important it is that we share this information to prevent an increase in overdose deaths.”
THE ZOMBIE DRUG
Xylazine, known on the streets as “tranq” or “the zombie drug,” is a powerful muscle relaxant and analgesic used by veterinarians to facilitate surgical procedures, safe handling and diagnostic testing in typically larger animals.
According to the NIDA, published human case reports note xylazine is a depressant that can cause drowsiness, amnesia and slow breathing and drop the heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously low levels. Other toxic effects reported include blurred vision, disorientation, staggering, coma, miosis and hyperglycemia.
Xylazine is referred to as the zombie drug because it can also deteriorate flesh at the injection site leading to amputation.
Heather Farmer, from the Equine Performance Veterinary Practice, said the typical dose of xylazine is two to three milliliters per thousand- pound horse.
She said the drug is typically administered through the vein using an IV for sedation for minor procedures such as cleaning a wound, sewing up a laceration or even the filing of teeth. She said the amount yields about 20 to 30 minutes of good sedation during which the horse is still able to stand and knows where it is.
“For us, this is a huge deal, because it’s a drug that we commonly prescribe,” she said. “I leave some of my clients small amounts of this in small bottles or syringes because they use it to sedate the horses that flip them … or to top them off after a procedure or so they have some for emergencies. Some of these barns have children who are coming to take lessons and stuff. … It’s a little bit easy to get if people aren’t aware and don’t take precautions to keep track of it.”
Farmer said the drug is common in veterinary practices and with the emerging trend, veterinarians need to be aware.
Anne Bingler, owner of local horse farm Crown Pointe Equestrian, said when she is administering the drug she makes sure she is double-gloved and wears a mask.
“Xylazine is one drug in my stable’s medicine cabinet that I take very seriously,” she said. “The thought of kids using this drug and handling it casually is frightening.”
OPERATION MOSCOW MULE
The OCSO unit broke up a drug trafficking ring selling fentanyl laced with animal tranquilizers in what was dubbed “Operation Moscow Mule” at the end of June. Law enforcement officers made 12 undercover buys from the ring.
Blanford said the case is significant. It’s like many others the department is now seeing, and the operation illustrates the growing trend of xylazine being mixed with fentanyl.
“Five years ago, you wouldn’t have even seen xylazine in any of the drugs,” he said. “It’s grown from 1% to 7% in 2018. Now, we’re roughly at about 80% of the fentanyl that we seize in undercover cases contains some form of xylazine in it, and those numbers are mirroring what a DEA source on a study (more than) 10 major cities in 2022 found; that they’re roughly about the 80% range as well. You can see that it’s accelerating at an extremely fast pace.”
Blanford said xylazine extends the effects of fentanyl, which is why even though the drug is so dangerous, dealers are putting it in an already- profitable product. When combined with fentanyl, it can increase the potential for a fatal overdose.
“The second part of it is that if you’re using xylazine in your product, you’re taking some of the fentanyl out,” he said. “That’s more profit for you. Xylazine costs less than $100 a kilogram. It’s … very accessible. … Fentanyl is about $50,000 for a kilogram. … It’s not scrutinized. … It’s not a controlled substance; it’s controlled in the sense that only veterinarians can get it, but it’s not covered under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act like cocaine or some of the other drugs that you’re familiar with are.”
The scariest part about xylazine? It’s a sedative, not an opioid. It does not respond to Naloxone, also known as Narcan, used to rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“We’ve seen a lot of success in reviving people with Narcan who have overdosed on opioids, but Narcan does not work on xylazine; that’s how dangerous it is,” Mina said. “We’ve had three overdose deaths this year in Orange County that are linked to xylazine, and we had two last year, so we can’t stress how important this is to let our residents and visitors know the dangerous effect of xylazine in our community.”
Another issue is the arduous detection of xylazine. Blanford said the drug can come as a liquid or as a white or brown powder.
What the OCSO cannot stress enough is that when someone overdoses, the paramedics should be called.
According to Florida Statute 893.21, “a person acting in good faith who seeks medical assistance for an individual experiencing, or believed to be experiencing, an alcohol-related or a drug-related overdose may not be arrested, charged, prosecuted or penalized.”
“I know a lot of time, users don’t want to get the paramedics involved, because law enforcement is going to show up with them,” Blanford said. “But at the point where you’re using a Narcan and it’s having no effect, you probably have tranquilizer issue with your partner and you need to call the paramedics to get them some help.”
Scott Allen, captain at the Winter Garden Police Department, said although the department is aware of the new trend, it has not been able to link any of the city’s overdoses to it.
Mike Bryant, deputy chief at the Oakland Police Department, said the trend is “concerning,” although officers at the department have responded to few fentanyl overdoses.
“To date, we have not seen fentanyl cut with xylazine,” he said. “Fentanyl is extremely hazardous to the public, and to all first responders who interact with those who may use it or distribute it. We will remain vigilant and current with trends in hopes of keeping everyone safe.”
Jayson Bonk, deputy chief at the Windermere Police Department, said he has noticed the uptick in public safety alerts about xylazine being combined with fentanyl.
“Our officers are trained to administer life-saving treatments using Narcan/Naloxone,” he said. “(Because) xylazine is a sedative, Narcan does not reverse its effects. We will continue to monitor this new trend and provide training and guidelines to our officers as they become available.”
Ross Addeo, a narcotics agent assigned to a task force working with the Ocoee Police Department, said there is, unfortunately, always going to be a new drug trend and the best thing people can do is educate themselves and stay away from drugs.
“The doctors used to write prescriptions for pills like they were candy,” he said. “Then the pill mills got shut down and they got real strict, so people went to heroin. Then, they found out they could do fentanyl because it’s 100 times more potent and you can get it cheaper, but everyone started dying. Now, they’ve kind of learned to administer the proper dosage so hundreds of people aren’t dying by the day like they used to be. Then they found out about xylazine, which is the new thing.”
Addeo said he personally hasn’t seen too much xylazine but has seen it pop up.
“Fifteen years ago, if someone went to buy something like a bag of cocaine or heroin or weed or a pill; if they were buying something, then that’s what they were getting,” he said. “Now, you have no idea what you’re getting. … That’s the scary part … every drug we’ve bought has come back testing positive for fentanyl.”
Addeo said there is about a 75% chance any drug bought today has some trace of fentanyl. He said he believes it’s only a matter of time before xylazine takes over.
Addeo also warned against another new trend where dealers are making pills out of popular drugs using pill presses that replicate the shape, size and color of real prescription pills. He said the pills are typically made in bright neon colors with unique shapes to attract younger children and to mirror candy.
“Xylazine is here to stay,” Blanford said. “It’s not a fad. It’s a growing trend that’s probably going to be here for a few years.”