Mar 29, 2023 - Health

Congress eyes making "zombie drug" xylazine a controlled substance

Illustration of the U.S. Capitol building with a syringe on top.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Congress is moving to designate an animal tranquilizer that's infiltrating the illegal drug trade as a controlled substance, to better allow authorities to track it and prosecute traffickers.

Driving the news: Bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) reflects the growing alarm over the proliferation of xylazine, a sedative known as "tranq" or "zombie drug" that's often mixed with fentanyl, resists common overdose reversal treatments like naloxone and causes skin-rotting wounds.

  • In a Monday letter to clinicians, SAMHSA wrote that xylazine is an emerging public health threat and noted that routine toxicology tests do not test for the substance.
  • Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned about the increased risk of xylazine-fentanyl mixtures, and DEA administrator Anne Milgram called xylazine "the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced."
  • At the end of February, the FDA announced new restrictions on the import of xylazine to ensure it's not diverted for illegal use.
  • Cortez Masto told Axios that conversations about scheduling xylazine began around January and included the DEA, veterinarians and cattle ranchers.

Between the lines: The legislation in Congress comes as state and federal lawmakers are pressing for more aggressive punishment for fentanyl possession and dealing, as the opioid and its derivatives continue to drive a worsening addiction crisis.

Yes, but: Addressing the opioid epidemic by banning drugs people use has not been popular among some advocacy organizations.

  • In 2021, more than 100 groups urged Congress not to permanently schedule fentanyl-related substances and increase enforcement because "there is simply no evidence" that doing so would reduce the illicit drug supply or overdose rates.
  • While making drugs illegal increases their prices and reduces availability, the effort can also discourage patients with opioid use disorder from seeking help, according to a March Rand report examining the U.S. response to the crisis.

What they're saying: "We need an all-of-the-above approach," Cortez Masto told Axios, that gives law enforcement more tools to go after trafficking and still helps those with substance use disorder.

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