PORTLAND, Oregon — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it’s cracking down on illegal imports of Xylazine, a powerful animal tranquilizer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the sedative for animals, but not for humans.
Xylazine, also known by its street name "tranq" or "zombie drug", is most often used as an adulterant with fentanyl and users are often unaware they're taking it, according the Drug Enforcement Administration. The drug may cause users to become sleepier and more prone to overdose, as well as rotting a user's skin with minor to severe skin wounds.
"The idea that skin ulcers that lead to surgeries, maybe even amputations, is horrific," said Dr. Amanda Risser, senior medical director of substance use disorder services at Central City Concern in Portland.
Risser noted that when users build a tolerance to smoking Xylazine-laced drugs such as fentanyl, they may turn to injecting them. If Xylazine is present, Risser said it can cause blood vessels to constrict, starving the skin of blood and oxygen even beyond the injection sites.
"It's kind of a breakdown of the skin's immune system," Risser said.
So far, Risser said Xylazine does not appear to have reached Oregon's drug supply in the same way it's gripped other states. She said at this point, she’s only heard of two possible but unconfirmed cases in Oregon.
"[Xylazine] may be there and I'm just not seeing the fallout yet," Risser said.
According to a DEA Joint Intelligence report published in October 2022, Xylazine appears to be following the same path across the U.S. as fentanyl took, starting in the Northeast before spreading to the South, then westward.
"This pattern indicates that use of Xylazine as an adulterant will likely increase and be commonly encountered in the illicit fentanyl supply," the report says.
Risser’s focus now, along with other harm reduction efforts, is monitoring local drug supplies for Xylazine and spreading the word among users.
"I think everyone is at risk for being exposed to Xylazine if they're using opioids these days, just as everyone right now is being exposed to fentanyl," Risser said. "There's just a lot of stuff that happens when you make things in a lab."