They Call It ‘Tranq’ — And It’s Making Street Drugs Even More Dangerous

Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, has made it into the illegal drug supply of opioids and cocaine. It is changing the way outreach workers treat overdoses and may be responsible for grisly injuries and infections among people who unknowingly inject it.

Approaching a van that distributes supplies for safer drug use in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a man named Kyle noticed an alert about xylazine.

“Xylazine?” he asked, sounding out the unfamiliar word. “Tell me more.”

A street-outreach team from Tapestry Health Systems delivered what’s becoming a routine warning. Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer. It’s not approved for humans but is showing up in about half the drug samples that Tapestry Health tests in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. It’s appearing mostly in the illegal fentanyl supply but also in cocaine.

“The past week, we’ve all been just racking our brains — like, ‘What is going on?’” Kyle said. “Because if we cook it up and we smoke it, we’re falling asleep after.”

(NPR and KHN are using only first names in this article for people who use illegal drugs.)

Kyle’s deep sleep could also have been triggered by fentanyl, but Kyle said one of his buddies used a test strip to check for the opioid and none was detected.

Xylazine, which is also known as “tranq” or “tranq dope,” surged first in some areas of Puerto Rico and then in Philadelphia, where it was found in 91% of opioid samples in the most recent reporting period. Data from January to mid-June shows that xylazine was in 28% of drug samples tested by the Massachusetts Drug Supply Data Stream, a state-funded network of community drug-checking and advisory groups that uses mass spectrometers to let people know what’s in bags or pills purchased on the street.

Whatever its path into the drug supply, the presence of xylazine is triggering warnings in Massachusetts and beyond for many reasons.

As Xylazine Use Rises, So Do Overdoses

Perhaps the biggest question is whether xylazine has played a role in the recent increase in overdose deaths in the U.S. In a study of 10 cities and states, xylazine was detected in fewer than 1% of overdose deaths in 2015 but in 6.7% in 2020, a year the U.S. set a record for overdose deaths. The record was broken again in 2021, which had more than 107,000 deaths. The study does not claim xylazine is behind the increase in fatalities, but study co-author Chelsea Shover said it may have contributed. Xylazine, a sedative, slows people’s breathing and heart rate and lowers their blood pressure, which can compound some effects of an opioid like fentanyl or heroin.

“If you have an opioid and a sedative, those two things are going to have stronger effects together,” said Shover, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

In Greenfield, Tapestry Health is responding to more overdoses as more tests show the presence of xylazine. “It correlates with the rise, and it correlates with Narcan not being effective to reverse xylazine,” said Amy Davis, assistant director for rural harm-reduction operations at Tapestry. Narcan is a brand name of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication.

“It’s scary to hear that there’s something new going around that could be stronger maybe than what I’ve had,” said May, a woman who stopped by Tapestry Health’s van. May said that she has a strong tolerance for fentanyl but that a few months ago, she started getting something that didn’t feel like fentanyl, something that “knocked me out before I could even put my stuff away.”

A Shifting Overdose Response

Davis and her colleagues are ramping up the safety messages: Never use alone, always start with a small dose, and always carry Narcan.

Davis is also changing the way they talk about drug overdoses. They begin by explaining that xylazine is not an opioid. Squirting naloxone into someone’s nose won’t reverse a deep xylazine sedation — the rescuer won’t see the dramatic awakening that is common when naloxone is administered to someone who has overdosed after using an opioid.

If someone has taken xylazine, the immediate goal is to make sure the person’s brain is getting oxygen. So Davis and others advise people to start rescue breathing after the first dose of Narcan. It may help restart the lungs even if the person doesn’t wake up.

“We don’t want to be focused on consciousness — we want to be focused on breathing,” Davis said.

Giving Narcan is still critical because xylazine is often mixed with fentanyl, and fentanyl is killing people.

“If you see anyone who you suspect has an overdose, please give Narcan,” said Dr. Bill Soares, an emergency room physician and the director of harm reduction services at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Soares said calling 911 is also critical, especially when someone has taken xylazine, “because if the person does not wake up as expected, they’re going to need more advanced care.”

‘Profound Sedation’ Worries Health Providers

Some people who use drugs say xylazine knocks them out for six to eight hours, raising concerns about the potential for serious injury during this “profound sedation,” said Dr. Laura Kehoe, medical director at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Substance Use Disorders Bridge Clinic.

Kehoe and other clinicians worry about patients who have been sedated by xylazine and are lying in the sun or snow, perhaps in an isolated area. In addition to exposure to the elements, they could be vulnerable to compartment syndrome from lying in one position for too long, or they could be attacked.

“We’re seeing people who’ve been sexually assaulted,” Kehoe said. “They’ll wake up and find that their pants are down or their clothes are missing, and they are completely unaware of what happened.”

In Greenfield, nurse Katy Robbins pulled up a photo from a patient seen in April as xylazine contamination soared. “We did sort of go, ‘Whoa, what is that?’” Robbins recalled, studying her phone. The image showed a wound like deep road rash, with an exposed tendon and a spreading infection.

Robbins and Tapestry Health, which runs behavioral and public health services in Western Massachusetts, have created networks so clients can get same-day appointments with a local doctor or hospital to treat this type of injury. But getting people to go get their wounds seen is hard. “There’s so much stigma and shame around injection drug use,” Robbins said. “Often, people wait until they have a life-threatening infection.”

That may be one reason amputations are increasing for people who use drugs in Philadelphia. One theory is that decreased blood flow from xylazine keeps wounds from healing.

“We’re certainly seeing a lot more wounds, and we’re seeing some severe wounds,” said Dr. Joe D’Orazio, director of medical toxicology and addiction medicine at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Almost everybody is linking this to xylazine.”

This article is part of a partnership that includes WBURNPR, and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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They Fell In Love Helping Drug Users. But Fear Kept Him From Helping Himself.

Sarah and Andy fell in love while working to keep drug users from overdosing. But when his own addiction reemerged, Andy’s fear of returning to prison kept him from the best treatment.

She was in medical school. He was just out of prison.

Sarah Ziegenhorn and Andy Beeler’s romance grew out of a shared passion to do more about the country’s drug overdose crisis.

Ziegenhorn moved back to her home state of Iowa when she was 26. She had been working in Washington, D.C., where she also volunteered at a needle exchange — where drug users can get clean needles. She was ambitious and driven to help those in her community who were overdosing and dying, including people she had grown up with.

“Many people were just missing because they were dead,” said Ziegenhorn, now 31. “I couldn’t believe more wasn’t being done.”

She started doing addiction advocacy in Iowa City while in medical school — lobbying local officials and others to support drug users with social services.

Beeler had the same conviction, born from his personal experience.

“He had been a drug user for about half of his life — primarily a longtime opiate user,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler spent years in and out of the criminal justice system for a variety of drug-related crimes, such as burglary and possession. In early 2018, he was released from prison. He was on parole and looking for ways to help drug users in his hometown.

He found his way to advocacy work and, through that work, found Ziegenhorn. Soon they were dating.

“He was just this really sweet, no-nonsense person who was committed to justice and equity,” she said. “Even though he was suffering in many ways, he had a very calming presence.”

People close to Beeler describe him as a “blue-collar guy” who liked motorcycles and home carpentry, someone who was gentle and endlessly curious. Those qualities could sometimes hide his struggle with anxiety and depression. Over the next year, Beeler’s other struggle, with opioid addiction, would flicker around the edges of their life together.

Eventually, it killed him.

People on parole and under supervision of the corrections system can face barriers to receiving appropriate treatment for opioid addiction. Ziegenhorn said she believes Beeler’s death is linked to the many obstacles to medical care he experienced while on parole.

About 4.5 million people are on parole or probation in the U.S., and research shows that those under community supervision are much more likely to have a history of substance use disorder than the general population. Yet rules and practices guiding these agencies can preclude parolees and people on probation from getting evidence-based treatment for their addiction.

A Shared Passion For Reducing Harm

From their first meeting, Ziegenhorn said, she and Beeler were in sync, partners and passionate about their work in harm reduction — public health strategies designed to reduce risky behaviors that can hurt health.

After she moved to Iowa, Ziegenhorn founded a small nonprofit called the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition. The group distributes the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone and other free supplies to drug users, with the goal of keeping them safe from illness and overdose. The group also works to reduce the stigma that can dehumanize and isolate drug users. Beeler served as the group’s coordinator of harm reduction services.

“In Iowa, there was a feeling that this kind of work was really radical,” Ziegenhorn said. “Andy was just so excited to find out someone was doing it.”

Meanwhile, Ziegenhorn was busy with medical school. Beeler helped her study. She recalled how they used to take her practice tests together.

“Andy had a really sophisticated knowledge of science and medicine,” she said. “Most of the time he’d been in prison and jails, he’d spent his time reading and learning.”

Beeler was trying to stay away from opioids, but Ziegenhorn said he still used heroin sometimes. Twice she was there to save his life when he overdosed. During one episode, a bystander called the police, which led to his parole officer finding out.

“That was really a period of a lot of terror for him,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler was constantly afraid the next slip — another overdose or a failed drug test — would send him back to prison.

An Injury, A Search For Relief

A year into their relationship, a series of events suddenly brought Beeler’s history of opioid use into painful focus.

It began with a fall on the winter ice. Beeler dislocated his shoulder — the same one he’d had surgery on as a teenager.

“At the emergency room, they put his shoulder back into place for him,” Ziegenhorn said. “The next day it came out again.”

She said doctors wouldn’t prescribe him prescription opioids for the pain because Beeler had a history of illegal drug use. His shoulder would dislocate often, sometimes more than once a day.

“He was living with this daily, really severe constant pain — he started using heroin very regularly,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler knew what precautions to take when using opioids: Keep naloxone on hand, test the drugs first and never use alone. Still, his use was escalating quickly.

A Painful Dilemma 

The couple discussed the future and their hope of having a baby together, and eventually Ziegenhorn and Beeler agreed: He had to stop using heroin.

They thought his best chance was to start on a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for opioid addiction, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Methadone is an opioid, and buprenorphine engages many of the same opioid receptors in the brain; both drugs can curb opioid cravings and stabilize patients. Studies show daily maintenance therapy with such treatment reduces the risks of overdose and improves health outcomes.

But Beeler was on parole, and his parole officer drug-tested him for opioids and buprenorphine specifically. Beeler worried that if a test came back positive, the officer might see that as a signal that Beeler had been using drugs illegally.

Ziegenhorn said Beeler felt trapped: “He could go back to prison or continue trying to obtain opioids off the street and slowly detox himself.”

He worried that a failed drug test — even if it was for a medication to treat his addiction — would land him in prison. Beeler decided against the medication.

A few days later, Ziegenhorn woke up early for school. Beeler had worked late and fallen asleep in the living room. Ziegenhorn gave him a kiss and headed out the door. Later that day, she texted him. No reply.

She started to worry and asked a friend to check on him. Not long afterward, Beeler was found dead, slumped in his chair at his desk. He’d overdosed.

“He was my partner in thought, and in life and in love,” Ziegenhorn said.

It’s hard for her not to rewind what happened that day and wonder how it could have been different. But mostly she’s angry that he didn’t have better choices.

“Andy died because he was too afraid to get treatment,” she said.

Beeler was services coordinator for the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, a group that works to help keep drug users safe. A tribute in Iowa City after his death began, “He died of an overdose, but he’ll be remembered for helping others avoid a similar fate.”(Courtesy of Sarah Ziegenhorn)

How Does Parole Handle Relapse? It Depends

It’s not clear that Beeler would have gone back to prison for admitting he’d relapsed and was taking treatment. His parole officer did not agree to an interview.

But Ken Kolthoff, who oversees the parole program that supervised Beeler in Iowa’s First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, said generally he and his colleagues would not punish someone who sought out treatment because of a relapse.

“We would see that that would be an example of somebody actually taking an active role in their treatment and getting the help they needed,” said Kolthoff.

The department doesn’t have rules prohibiting any form of medication for opioid addiction, he said, as long as it’s prescribed by a doctor.

“We have people relapse every single day under our supervision. And are they being sent to prison? No. Are they being sent to jail? No,” Kolthoff said.

But Dr. Andrea Weber, an addiction psychiatrist with the University of Iowa, said Beeler’s reluctance to start treatment is not unusual.

“I think a majority of my patients would tell me they wouldn’t necessarily trust going to their [parole officer],” said Weber, assistant director of addiction medicine at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. “The punishment is so high. The consequences can be so great.”

Weber finds probation and parole officers have “inconsistent” attitudes toward her patients who are on medication-assisted treatment.

“Treatment providers, especially in our area, are still very much ingrained in an abstinence-only, 12-step mentality, which traditionally has meant no medications,” Weber said. “That perception then invades the entire system.”

Attitudes And Policies Vary Widely

Experts say it’s difficult to draw any comprehensive picture about the availability of medication for opioid addiction in the parole and probation system. The limited amount of research suggests that medication-assisted treatment is significantly underused.

“It’s hard to quantify because there are such a large number of individuals under community supervision in different jurisdictions,” said Michael Gordon, a senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute, based in Baltimore.

A national survey published in 2013 found that about half of drug courts did not allow methadone or other evidence-based medications used to treat opioid use disorder.

A more recent study of probation and parole agencies in Illinois reported that about a third had regulations preventing the use of medications for opioid use disorder. Researchers found the most common barrier for those on probation or parole “was lack of experience by medical personnel.”

Faye Taxman, a criminology professor at George Mason University, said decisions about how to handle a client’s treatment often boil down to the individual officer’s judgment.

“We have a long way to go,” she said. “Given that these agencies don’t typically have access to medical care for clients, they are often fumbling in terms of trying to think of the best policies and practices.”

Increasingly, there is a push to make opioid addiction treatment available within prisons and jails. In 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections started allowing all three FDA-approved medications for opioid addiction. That led to a dramatic decrease in fatal opioid overdoses among those who had been recently incarcerated.

Massachusetts has taken similar steps. Such efforts have only indirectly affected parole and probation.

“When you are incarcerated in prison or jail, the institution has a constitutional responsibility to provide medical services,” Taxman said. “In community corrections, that same standard does not exist.”

Taxman said agencies may be reluctant to offer these medications because it’s one more thing to monitor. Those under supervision are often left to figure out on their own what’s allowed.

“They don’t want to raise too many issues because their freedom and liberties are attached to the response,” she said.

Richard Hahn, a researcher at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management who consults on crime and drug policy, said some agencies are shifting their approach.

“There is a lot of pressure on probation and parole agencies not to violate people just on a dirty urine or for an overdose” said Hahn, who is executive director of the institute’s Crime & Justice Program.

The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration calls medication-assisted treatment the “gold standard” for treating opioid addiction when used alongside “other psychosocial support.”

Addiction is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy for the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit law firm based in New York City.

She said disability protections extend to the millions of people on parole or probation. But people under community supervision, Friedman said, often don’t have an attorney who can use this legal argument to advocate for them when they need treatment.

“Prohibiting people with that disability from taking medication that can keep them alive and well violates the ADA,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.