Shapiro signs bill to fight illicit use of xylazine while keeping the animal drug legal for vets

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A man shows his scars from using "tranq" (xylazine) in Kensington, Philadelphia, on Aug. 8, 2022 (Capital-Star photo by Daniella Heminghaus).

Gov. Josh Shapiro signed legislation to place xylazine, a dangerous animal tranquilizer being used in illicit street drugs, permanently on the list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess without a license or authorization.

Xylazine, also known by the street name “tranq,” increasingly contributes to overdose deaths as drug users knowingly or unknowingly take it with other substances, particularly illicit fentanyl. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, xylazine was present in 760 overdose deaths in 2022, a 32% increase over 2021 when it was involved in 575 fatal overdoses. 

The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support in the state House and Senate earlier this month, follows the Shapiro administration’s temporary placement of xylazine on the state’s list of Schedule III drugs in April 2023.

Schedule III drugs are those with a medical use that are available with a prescription that have a moderate potential for abuse. Other Schedule III drugs include Vicodin, ketamine and anabolic steroids. Illegal possession of such substances is a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

“By signing this bill into law today, we are sending a powerful message to drug dealers that we will not let you continue to peddle this poison in our communities,” Shapiro said in a statement. “This bill helps to ensure xylazine isn’t diverted from legitimate sources to drug dealers, and still allows for important veterinary use on animals.”

House Bill 1661, introduced by state Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset), protects the use of xylazine by the agricultural industry while allowing law enforcement to prosecute illicit use or possession of the drug.

“The driver behind this legislation stemmed from Somerset County being the location for one of the first cases involving recreational xylazine usage,” Metzgar said in a statement. “The person used it on a baby changing station at a convenience store. Illicit xylazine usage is a serious public health concern, not only to the user but also innocent bystanders.”

The legislation passed 172-29 in the House on May 6 following an amendment by state Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) in the Senate, where it passed 49-1.

Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny), who was among the 29 House Democrats who opposed the bill, said on the chamber floor that adding xylazine to the controlled substances list was the “definition of insanity,” noting that making a substance illegal to possess doesn’t prevent its use.

“We are doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” Kinkead said. “Criminalizing the possession of an illicit substance is not going to deter someone from possessing it, especially when it comes to xylazine because most people don’t know that xylazine is in the drugs that they have purchased.”

Kinkead noted that given the effects of human use of xylazine, the state should be educating the public on its dangers. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned in 2022 that xylazine is not safe for human use. It can cause skin ulcers and open wounds that lead to decaying tissue and bacterial infections and ultimately amputation, the Shapiro administration said in a statement. 

“The failure of our body to educate people about xylazine before criminalizing it is incredibly problematic,” Kinkead said. “Instead, we are sending them to prison.”

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