Thijs Jan van Aalst
editor Bureau Washington
The White House warns of a new drug that will have a “devastating impact on society.” It concerns xylazine, an anesthetic for cattle, to which more and more Americans are becoming addicted.
The substance, also known as the zombie drug or tranq (short for ‘tranquillizer’), is even more addictive than other substances, and also more deadly: the number of overdoses in the US has quadrupled since the start of the corona pandemic.
Longer high and cheaper
Because the high you get from xylazine is longer than many other drugs, it is often mixed with other commonly used substances. Usually that is fentanyl, a painkiller that is a hundred times stronger than morphine.
Between August 2021 and August 2022, more than 70,000 people died in the US from an overdose of that drug. That is four times as much as before the corona pandemic. Reason for Anne Milgram, head of the US drug authority DEA, to say that “xylazine is making the deadliest drug crisis our country has ever seen even more fatal”.
In the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, you see the addicts everywhere. See for yourself where the ‘zombie drug’ leads:
The first reports of xylazine as a drug came from Puerto Rico, where cross-cutting of the drug with other drugs began more than twenty years ago. That happened not only because of the longer high, but also because it is cheaper. A single syringe of fentanyl usually costs about $10. Mixed with xylazine, that’s only $5. It makes the drug particularly lucrative for drug cartels.
Repeated use of xylazine can lead to open wounds in any area, often the extremities. If left untreated, those wounds will get deeper and deeper, until amputation becomes necessary. An aid worker in Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood where the drug became ‘big’, is despondent. “I’ve seen people lose their arms and legs.”
‘Ground zero’ of the drug crisis
There is little that can be done against a xylazine overdose. The drug naloxone, a nasal spray that stops many drug overdose symptoms, doesn’t work with xylazine, says nurse Jason Bienert. “We see that people administer a lot of naloxone out of desperation. But actually they have to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The addicts suffocate because they can no longer breathe deeply due to the drug.”
Bienert works for Voices of Hope, a foundation that works with drug addicts. He also sees the number of xylazine addicts exploding: “The drug supply here in the area is all coming from Philadelphia, which has really become ground zero of the crisis. The 400 fentanyl samples I had tested all tested positive for xylazine.”
One of Bienert’s first “patients,” as he calls the addicts he works with, is April Tabor. She managed to overcome her xylazine addiction with Bienert’s help, but that help came too late to save her left forearm: “The wounds on my hands were bloody, swollen and resembled charred flesh. When I lost feeling in my left hand, I couldn’t put syringes in my right hand. As a result, that hand was spared, and I just put more syringes in my left. It deteriorated until it had to be removed.”
Tabor says many people don’t seek help because the stigma is so great: “People just see you as a junkie. It almost cost me my life, because even with my infections I stayed at home, afraid of being labeled ‘zombie’ or because the police might be called. You just have to treat people with respect.”
She fears that the US government will not be able to cope with the crisis: “They couldn’t handle it when it was just painkillers, so they will only lag behind now. I can We can only hope that we will turn the tide if we raise awareness of this danger.”