A horse sedative is emerging as a new drug on the streets of America, new research shows.
In particular, this drug is associated with almost a third of opioid overdose deaths in the state of Philadelphia.
The barbiturates mentioned above, called xylazine, are not considered opioids, but are often found mixed with opioid heroin or fentanyl in a drug compound sometimes called “tranq dope,” according to a study published in the journal. Injury Prevention.
Researchers have found that the number of times the drug has been discovered during an autopsy has increased over the past decade, with opioid overdose deaths in Philadelphia.
The results show that “the opioid pandemic across America continues to grow,” write the authors. They say deaths from xylazine overdose in water may be underreported because labs don’t always test for the substance. The authors call for increased monitoring of xylazine abuse in the United States and its health consequences.
Xylazine is a sedative used in veterinary medicine, especially in horses. In the United States, human use is illegal and is known to cause dangerous side effects, including low blood pressure and slow heart rate.
Puerto Rican illegal drug users have been using xylazine with opioids since the early 2000s. Recently, it has appeared in the Department of Health’s illicit drug supply in the Americas.
Maryland, Ohio, and Michigan have all reported multiple xylazine-related overdose deaths in the past two years. But overall, research on xylazine in the illicit drug supply in the United States is very limited.
In the new study, the scientists analyzed data on drug overdose deaths in Philadelphia between 2010 and 2019. Specifically, they looked at deaths related to heroin or fentanyl, both of which are opioids. Between 2010 and 2015, xylazine was detected in only 2% of drug overdose deaths. But in 2019, that number rose to 31%.
In addition, data on illicit drug seizures from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration showed that xylazine was increasingly found in “poly-drug” samples containing heroin or fentanyl, among other drugs. Between 2010 and 2013, no polytrogenic sample tested in the agency’s laboratory contained xylazine, but in 2019, 25% of samples contained this substance.
Studies on the health effects of xylazine in combination with opioids are still limited, but some studies suggest that the mixture may increase the risk of death from opioid overdose. However, the scientists noted that their study was unable to determine which drugs or drug combinations led to overdose deaths in Philadelphia.
It is also unclear exactly why xylazine was added to the drug supply in the United States and whether those who overdosed were intentionally taking the drug. Several focus groups in Philadelphia found illegal drug users reporting that xylazine made the effects of opioids last longer, the authors said.
The authors conclude that “more research is needed to understand the synergistic effects of fentanyl and xylazine in humans and to better contextualize the reasons for its use in the United States.” And medical jurisdictions should constantly check medications whenever possible.