What is 'tranq'? Flesh-eating animal tranquilizer xylazine linked to thousands of OD deaths across US

'This is more like tissue death. This is black, necrotic tissue destruction,' said a UCLA researcher

What is 'tranq'? Flesh-eating animal tranquilizer xylazine linked to thousands of OD deaths across US
Tranq is often used on horses as a muscle relaxant and anesthetic (Representational photo, Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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The flesh-eating animal tranquilizer, xylazine, has been linked to thousands of drug overdoses across the US. Known on the street as 'tranq', the sedative reportedly inundates heroin and fentanyl supplies in Philadelphia, Delaware and Michigan. It is found is 91% of Philly’s heroin and fentanyl supplies, a report in the peer-reviewed journal Science Direct says. 

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The drug is often used on horses as a muscle relaxant and anesthetic. Deaths from the sedative in Michigan increased 86.8% between 2019 and 2020. It dropped off a little in 2021, the Detroit Free Press reported. It was detected in half the opioid deaths in the Ann Arbor region in the past two years. The deaths have accelerated fears of its westward proliferation. In Maryland, xylazine was involved in 19% of all drug overdose deaths last year. The year before, 10% of all drug overdose deaths in Connecticut involved the drug. 

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Xylazine causes wounds and sores on the bodies of users. This leads to increase of soft-tissue infections, bone disease and amputations, substance-abuse field epidemiologist Jen Shinefeld told Vice. The drug can also slow down blood flow and knock out the user, affecting the body’s ability to heal itself. Tranq causes overdoses but it is not an opoid, and thus its effects cannot possibly be halted with naloxone.

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“This is more like tissue death. This is black, necrotic tissue destruction,” UCLA researcher Joseph Friedman, who has studied the drug, said. “And the necrotic tissue doesn’t necessarily develop at the site where the drug was injected. There’s evidence it can appear anywhere on the body.”

To treat tranq-related lesions, Philadelphia is now hiring a wound-care specialist and a field nurse, New York Post reported. “It’s something I’ve never seen before anywhere else. People all over the place, sticking needles anywhere they possibly can, passed out. Philly’s going under from tranq,” said user Sam Brennan, 28. 

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Brennan initially mainlined the drug into a vein in her neck until it caused a dark sore, but she now shoots it straight into her muscle, chasing its euphoric effects. “It’s a way more intense sickness than fentanyl… You feel like you’re literally going to die,” she said. “It’s like a three-hour process—you’re going out, and you’re waking up, and you’re sick," she added.

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Another user, 59-year-old Bill, said the drug knocks him out for three hours and causes an outbreak of sores. “I never shoot up in my hands, but I get abscesses in my knuckles, in the tops of my fingers,” he said. “[They’re] caused by whatever they’re putting in the drugs.”

The drug has been abused in Puerto Rico for years, where it is known as 'anestesia de caballo', or 'horse tranquillizer'. Reportedly, the recent stateside increase can be linked to the ban on fentanyl by China, its main manufacturer, in 2019 under US pressure. “When fentanyl is not available, the cuts get heavy with xylazine,” Shinefeld said. “We’ll have someone that’ll do a bag that’s 23 parts xylazine to one part fentanyl, and we’ll have 15 people [overdose] on one corner,” Shinefeld said. Brennan additionally stated, "It’s killing us."

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