An animal tranquilizer has been cropping up in narcotic mixes from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia and is now spreading in Massachusetts.
Opiates were already dangerous in Massachusetts — an estimated 18,522 residents died from opioid-related overdose deaths from 2010 through 2021, according to state Department of Public Health data — but there’s an increasingly common additive found in the deadly drug cocktails sweeping the state: xylazine, an animal sedative not approved for human use.
Massachusetts Drug Supply Data Stream, a state-funded collaborative effort between Brandeis University researchers, the DPH and various towns and police departments to monitor illicit drugs in the state, found that 28% of drug samples across the commonwealth tested positive for the drug in June.
Nationally, xylazine is being found more frequently in overdose deaths. Its presence in those deaths rose from 0.36% by roughly 18.6 times to 6.7% of deaths in 2020, according to a study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in April.
The district attorney’s office in Berkshire County warned of its prevalence in its county’s drug supply last month and, on Tuesday, the Worcester County District Attorney issued a similar alert.
And that’s very bad news. Xylazine is a “long-acting, non-opioid sedative that can cause unresponsiveness, unconsciousness, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and reduced breathing,” according to a MADDS alert on the drug they’ve been tracking and reporting on since last year.
The effects could be very scary if a person overdosed on a mix with xylazine present, as Naloxone — the medicine the National Institute on Drug Abuse says “rapidly reverses an opioid overdose” and commonly employed by first responders — does not reverse its effects and the person may remain unresponsive even after receiving the Naloxone.
“Naloxone WILL NOT reverse the effects of xylazine,” MADDS wrote in its July alert, “but ALWAYS administer naloxone in a suspected overdose. Naloxone will reverse the effects of any opioids present.”
The drug has been a well-known illicit drug additive in Puerto Rico — where it’s known as “anestesia de caballo,” or “horse anesthetic” — since the early 2000s, according to a report filed to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
A study published in J Urban Health in June 2012 on drug users in Puerto Rico conducted in 2007 found that 80.7% of drug samples contained xylazine.
The researchers in Philadelphia who wrote the aforementioned report tracked the drug in overdose deaths over a 10-year period and saw it grow from fewer than 2% of cases from 2010 to 2015 to finding its presence in 31% of cases by 2019.
The more recent study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence mentioned earlier found Philadelphia to be the leading place of xylazine-present OD deaths at 25.8%, followed by Maryland at 19.3% and with a New England state, Connecticut, breaking the top three at 10.2%.
A discarded needle. (Herald file photo.)