Vulnerable people are getting hooked on a horror “zombie” drug known as “tranq” that destroys users’ flesh because, unknown to them, it’s been mixed with heroin and fentanyl.
And as bad as heroin and fentanyl are, there at least treatments for those drugs if people overdose. That’s is not the case with tranq which has led to deaths.
Indeed, very little is known about how to combat the effects of the drug.
Outreach workers have become concerned that xylazine, the horse tranquilliser colloquially known as “tranq” or the “zombie drug,” is taking over the drug supply in many US cities.
Originally seen in Philadelphia and then San Francisco and Los Angeles, there are now reports of it appearing in New York City where it could be in 25 per cent of the narcotic supply.
Xylazine causes sedative-like symptoms, such as excessive sleepiness and respiratory depression.
Pictures have emerged of those apparently on the drug shuffling through the streets in an almost zombie-like tranq stupor.
‘Big a** holes all over you’
With long enough use, the drug can also lead to raw wounds that can become severe and spread rapidly with repeated exposure.
The crusty ulcerations, which can become dead skin called eschar, can result in amputation if left untreated.
“Next thing you know, you wake up with these big-a** holes all over you,” user Jennette Freas told Philadelphia’s WPIX ABC News.
“They just popped up anywhere. It’s not necessarily where you shoot up.”
Reporter: ‘Never seen anything like this’
Mary Murphy, a reporter at WPIX, said the scenes she saw in the Kensington neighbourhood of Philadelphia’s north – which is awash with tranq – were disturbing.
“I’ve been in the news business for 40 years and we’ve never seen anything like this.
“People on the verge of losing legs and arms because a horse tranquilliser is infecting their bones”.
The city has even hired a wound care specialist due to the injuries.
Ms Murphy spoke to one man who said the hole in his leg, caused by his drug use, was so big he could “fit two fingers in there”.
Talking to website Vice, the medical director of the Philadelphia health department Dr Daniel Teixeira da Silva said tranq wounds were unique because, “they cause the tissue to die”.
Blood vessel constriction is thought to be the reason.
‘People look like animals’
Art El Malik used tranq and said it was alarming to see some the actions of other users on the drug.
“We’d see people walking around looking like animals, with their knuckles touching the ground.”
Tranq was detected after four overdose deaths in December and January in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles, according to the LA Times.
While approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for veterinary use, xylazine, a non-opioid, is not safe for humans, and those who overdose on the drug do not respond to naloxone, or “Narcan”, the most common overdose reversal treatment.
Because it’s not listed as a controlled substance for animals or humans, tranq lands in a confusing and grey area — and hospitals rarely test for it with routine toxicology screenings.
Cut into heroin and fentanyl
Prevention Point Philadelphia is an organisation that attempts to help addicts.
Co-ordinator for overdose prevention Shawn Westfahl told WPIX News that tranq, which can be cheaply bought online, is mixed into the pre-existing heroin and fentanyl supply.
That means more batches can be eked out and profits pumped up for the drug pushers.
“Adding a horse tranquilliser, something more sedating, makes it feel like it lasts longer,” he said.
Tranq is now thought to be in 90 per cent of Philadelphia’s hard drugs.
Xyalzine is not a new drug. It’s been spotted since at least 2006. But right now, its use appears to have exploded. And those working in the healthcare sector are struggling to work out how widespread it use and abuse is and how to treat it.
There is no US national guidance for how to even test for tranq and its effects, although graphically visible, are still little understood.
It’s now thought one third of Boston’s street drugs contain tranq.
“In some of the places where it’s arrived, it really takes over,” drug researcher Joseph Freidman told website Boston.com.
“That’s the only thing available.”