Mar 3, 2023 - News

Seattle health officials gird for "zombie drug"

Illustration of a pattern of syringes, with a spotlight on one of them.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Health officials in Seattle are bracing for a potential increase in overdoses tied to a powerful animal sedative, nicknamed "tranq" or "zombie drug," that's been showing up in opioids and other drugs.

Driving the news: The drug, xylazine, has long been used by veterinarians. But it's now being found in up to 90% of street opioids in Philadelphia, the city's Department of Public Health reported.

  • It is commonly used as a cheap cutting agent to extend the effect of opioids, particularly short-acting fentanyls.

Why it matters: Seattle-area health officials are concerned because the drug can cause profound sedation and dangerously low blood pressure levels and heart rates. It does not respond to naloxone as opioids do and is linked to progressive and extensive necrotic skin wounds that may require amputation.

What they're saying: "Xylazine is here," Jason R. Williams, a researcher with the Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington, told Axios. It showed up last year in both crime lab data — from drug seizures made during arrests — and in medical examiner data, he said, but not nearly at the levels seen in the eastern U.S.

  • However, drug supply trends tend to move from east to west and so Washington officials say that could change.

By the numbers: Based on death certificate data, there were seven overdose deaths in 2022 that involved xylazine, Raechel Sims of the Washington State Department of Health told Axios in an email. In all of them, there was more than one substance present:

  • All seven also involved fentanyl, and heroin was present in two of the deaths.
  • Three also involved meth.
  • One also included a prescription opioid.

Of note: On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration said it will restrict imports of xylazine, halting and reviewing shipments to ensure they're headed toward state-licensed pharmacies, agency-approved manufacturing facilities, or veterinarians, Axios' Sabrina Moreno reported.


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