What is xylazine? Why Congress is cracking down on this animal tranquilizer in fentanyl fight
WASHINGTON – Xylazine is not a drug you'd find in people's medicine cabinets, but it's killing people.
This animal tranquilizer, used by veterinarians to sedate horses and cattle, is being added to fentanyl and other street drugs. It's not approved for human use. It's a dangerous sedative, and it's not an opioid.
Because it's not an opioid, it doesn't respond to the lifesaving drug Narcan. That means people who abuse xylazine are more likely to die.
Congress is moving to classify the drug as a controlled substance, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency sounded the alarm earlier this month. Xylazine is a widespread problem and has been found in fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 states, according to a DEA public health alert.
"Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced – fentanyl – even deadlier," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said.
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What Congress wants to do about xylazine
Congress wants to make xylazine a controlled substance as the country fights the latest wave of the opioid crisis.
The House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday to help the DEA and local law enforcement "get xylazine off our streets," according to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.
"Drug traffickers are going to great lengths to pad their profits with dangerous drugs like tranq, and we need to empower law enforcement to crack down on its spread in our communities," said Cortez Masto, lead sponsor of the Senate bill.
"Tranq" is one of the street names for the drug. It is also known as "tranq dope," "sleep cut" and "zombie heroin." Brand names for medical use include AnaSed, Rompun and Sedazin.
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Republican, Democratic senators support bill to fight xylazine
“Drug overdoses remain unacceptably high as cartels and traffickers continue to flood our nation with deadly and ever-changing poison,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "We cannot successfully prevent these tragedies with one hand tied behind our back."
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., is also a lead co-sponsor. Other senators sponsoring the bill include Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Roger Marshall, R-Kan.; and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is holding a news conference on the issue at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
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House bill to fight xylazine gains traction
On the House side, Republicans and Democrats have introduced a similar bill to get xylazine off the streets, including Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.; August Pfluger, R-Texas; Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.; Ken Buck, R-Colo.; and Chris Pappas, D-N.H.
Xylazine has legitimate uses in agriculture, and lawmakers say they want to prevent it from being misused on the streets.
Drug traffickers are combining xylazine and fentanyl to create a "toxic brew of drugs" that is cheaper, deadlier and more addictive, Panetta and Pfluger said in a statement.
"Our goal is to save lives and to make sure law enforcement has the tools its needs to respond appropriately to those who are making these deadly concoctions that are killing so many of our neighbors," Bilirakis said in a statement. "At the same time, we must ensure that those veterinarians who are using xylazine for legitimate purposes have the ability to continue doing so. Our legislation strikes that right balance."
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How many fentanyl deaths?
Xylazine is being added to fentanyl, a fast-acting opioid that has fueled another deadly wave of an epidemic that began in the mid-1990s with increased prescribing of addictive pills like OxyContin.
About 1 million Americans died of drug overdoses from 2000 to 2020. In that time, more than half were because of opioids. By 2020, at least 75% of drug overdose deaths were tied to opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deaths have steadily increased through two decades through rising addiction to prescription pain pills and heroin, then sharply increased in the past few years because of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
A large number of deaths also have been attributed to fentanyl poisoning, which happens when fentanyl is laced in other street drugs without the user's knowledge. There have been multiple reports of young people dying from buying and consuming pills they didn't know were laced – or filled – with fentanyl.
Nearly 108,000 Americans died from drug poisonings from August 2021 to August 2022, and 66% involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the latest data from the CDC.
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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is xylazine? Congress cracks down on this drug in fentanyl fight