DEA issues dire US warning of fentanyl mixed with flesh-eating 'tranq' drug

FILE - A person smokes fentanyl on May 3, 2022, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

U.S. authorities warned this week of a sharp increase of fentanyl mixed with xylazine, a powerful animal sedative used in veterinary medicine that’s known to cause open skin wounds so severe – it can lead to amputation.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Monday posted a public safety alert about the issue, writing that xylazine "is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier."

Xylazine, also known as "tranq," has been making its way into the illicit drug supply in recent years, particularly in the Northeast. Studies have shown that people exposed to xylazine often knowingly – or unknowingly – use it in combination with other drugs, particularly fentanyl, to lengthen its euphoric effects, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Officials say because it’s not an opioid, the overdose reversal medication Narcan does not reverse its effects. However, experts still recommend administering Narcan in a suspected overdose because xylazine is so frequently combined with opioids. 

The animal tranquilizer is also not a controlled substance and not approved for human use. Xylazine is a central nervous system depressant that can cause drowsiness and amnesia, as well as slow breathing, heart rate, and bring blood pressure down to dangerously low levels, experts say. 

Taking opioids in combination with xylazine and other central nervous system depressants, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, only increases the risk of a fatal overdose, the DEA said.

People who inject drug mixtures containing xylazine also can develop severe wounds, which can lead to necrosis, or the rotting of human tissue, and lead to possible amputation.

In its warning, the DEA said it has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures "in 48 of 50 states."

"The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022, approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement.

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Nearly 108,000 Americans died between August 2021 and August 2022 from drug poisonings, with 66% of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"The Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel in Mexico, using chemicals largely sourced from China, are primarily responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl that is being trafficked in communities across the United States," the DEA said in its notice.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also recently sent an alert to health care providers about the risks to patients exposed to xylazine in illicit drugs.