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'It is killing people left and right': Health experts concerned about xylazine's role in overdoses

The DEA estimates across the country roughly 23% of opioid evidence contains the deadly animal tranquilizer, xylazine.

DES MOINES, Iowa — An animal tranquilizer is becoming more common in illegal drugs, making even the deadliest drugs even deadlier. 

Xylazine is an animal sedative, typically used in horses, that's been infiltrating the illegal drug market.

According to the DEA Omaha Division, it's causing an alarming trend. 

"The real concern is xylazine has taken the probably the most significant deadliest drug threat this country has ever faced, and made it deadlier," said Steve Bell, assistant special agent in charge at the Omaha DEA Division. "We've seen it in fentanyl. We have seen it in cocaine. We have seen it in heroin, and it is killing people left and right."

Bell says the sedative is added to illicit substances to create bulk. A move that not only makes the dealer more money, but provides the user with a more intense, but deadly high. 

"All the opiate exhibits evidence submitted to the DEA lab throughout the country, it's roughly 20% to 23% of those exhibits have contained xylazine," Bell said. 

The CDC also noted xylazine's growing presence: In 2015, the tranquilizer was involved in less than 1% of overdoses. In 2020, that number jumped to 7%. 


Medical staff at MercyOne say they've seen first hand the scary scenarios the drug can create. 

Xylazine doesn't show up in standard drug tests, but there's normally a big tell: When an overdose patient can't be revived by narcan, staff can only assume xylazine was a factor. 

"If somebody uses this drug, we can't reverse it," said Amanda Monroe-Rubenall, clinical educator at MercyOne Critical Care. "All we can do is support it until it wears off."

On top of being resistant to the reversal benefits of narcan, xylazine can also cause horrible sores. 

"People have had to have limbs amputated, because their tissues have gotten what we call necrotic, where they have just died," Monroe-Rubendall said. 

Monroe-Rubendall says she believes the health system has seen the drug in pediatric patients all the way through adults. 

To make matters worse, xylazine is not a controlled substance, meaning the DEA can't seize or regulate it. 

"So any person can get on a computer with a little bit of luck and flat out order xylazine from from another country," Bell said.

The DEA believes the number of xylazine overdoses might actually be much higher. It says many autopsies, especially in rural areas, are not testing for the drug. 

Still, there is some good news: there's a bipartisan bill before Congress aimed at making xylazine a controlled substance. Sen. Chuck Grassley is one of the U.S. senators who introduced it. 

The bill would require the manufacturers to send reports on production and distribution to the DEA, so the agency can make sure it doesn't end up in the black market. 

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