Mar 15, 2023 - News

"Zombie drug" threatens to be Denver's next public health crisis

Illustration of a small syringe casting a large shadow.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A potent animal sedative, dubbed "tranq" or "zombie drug," is increasingly infiltrating illicit substances like fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, and putting Denver health officials on alert.

Why it matters: The veterinary tranquilizer xylazine is a likely contributor to soaring overdose death rates in the U.S, medical experts say.

BFD: The drug causes dangerously low blood pressure, slow heart rates, blackouts and skin wounds so severe they can lead to amputations.

  • The sedative, which makes the effects of fentanyl even deadlier, is also unresponsive to common overdose-reversal treatments, like naloxone.

Threat level: Xylazine has arrived in Denver, city police tell Axios Denver. Authorities detected 18 cases of it in 2022 through a fentanyl-monitoring project that tests drugs.

  • Authorities say that figure is likely higher, but Denver is nowhere near levels seen in the Northeast, where the drug is prevalent.
  • Some public health officials warn it will spread soon because drug supply trends tend to move from east to west, Axios Seattle's Christine Clarridge reports.

What they're saying: "We are incredibly concerned" about xylazine soon replacing fentanyl, Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, tells us.

  • Her organization is educating the community about the danger of these drugs, and "hoping that folks are starting to create testing strips," she adds.

By the numbers: The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Denver reached 233 last year compared to just 20 in 2017, according to new medical examiner data that city council members will be briefed on during a committee meeting today.

  • The 233 deaths are the equivalent of a Denverite dying from fentanyl every 38 hours.
  • People aged 25-34 accounted for 71 deaths in 2022, while 35-44 years old had the second-highest fatalities, at 63.

The big picture: The Food and Drug Administration said this month it will restrict imports of xylazine to ensure they're headed toward state-licensed pharmacies, agency-approved manufacturing facilities, or veterinarians, Axios' Sabrina Moreno reports.

Between the lines: A report published last week by the Colorado Attorney General's Office found that buying fentanyl and other drugs is essentially as easy as "ordering food delivery or calling a ride service" thanks to social media apps.

  • The study found the prevalence and weak regulation of social media have contributed to fentanyl overdoses becoming the top cause of preventable fatalities for adults under the age of 45.
  • Attorney General Phil Weiser is calling for more oversight over social media companies, including a federal agency to hold them responsible. He also wants to see state policies that require apps to be more transparent about what's happening on their platforms.

What to watch: A bipartisan state bill facing opposition from top Colorado Democrats in the majority aims to create a new level 1 drug felony for selling drugs that result in death. Proponents say it would close a loophole created by a law passed last year that lets drug dealers get off on a technicality.

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