A powerful animal tranquilizer infiltrating the illicit drug supply in the U.S. is now showing up in B.C., where it’s been detected in a small but increasing number of toxic drug deaths since 2020.
Xylazine, which is used by veterinarians to sedate large animals and livestock, has been found in less than five per cent of drug samples checked since 2019 by the free Vancouver community service Get Your Drugs Tested.
Manager and technician supervisor Angus Quinton said the drug, commonly known as ‘tranq’ on the streets, is showing up in opioid mixtures containing fentanyl.
“One of the main concerns with xylazine, no one knows exactly what it does to people because it’s not for people,” Quinton told Global News in an interview.
“The numbers are definitely increasing over time.”
Quinton said samples checked by Get Your Drugs Tested saw xylazine identifications soar from two in 2019 to five in 2020, 50 in 2021 and 92 last year.
St. Paul’s Hospital addiction medicine specialist Dr. Paxton Bach said current drug checking data shows less than five per cent of B.C. samples are testing positive for xylazine.
“I’m deeply concerned,” said Bach. “I think it’s inevitable it’s going to end up here.”
In late February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it had taken action to restrict the unlawful import of xylazine, as the veterinary sedative continues to wreak havoc on America’s east coast open air drug markets in cities like Philadelphia and Boston.
Bach said when xylazine is mixed with opioids it has unpredictable effects, including prolonging a fentanyl high, blackouts, amnesia, and heightened risk of overdose.
‘Tranq’ also can also cause what he describes as “scary to life-threatening consequences” like deep skin wounds that eat away at a person’s flesh.
“It can also lead to these really aggressive non-healing skin ulcers that are quite difficult to treat and can lead to infections and potentially even limb amputation,” Bach told Global News.
One Boston user who used xylazine told NBC News his “leg looked like it got eaten by a zombie.”
Because it’s not an opioid, naloxone does not work to reverse the sedative effects of the animal tranquilizer.
Former drug user Guy Felicella, who is 10 years sober and a peer clinical adviser with the BC Centre on Substance Use, fears things will only get worse once xylazine penetrates B.C.’s street supply because the province hasn’t been able to keep up with the rapidly changing illicit drug market.
“It’s just one more additive into an already deadly toxic supply that will kill people,” Felicella told Global News in an interview Tuesday.
Between 2019 and 2022, Health Canada reported a 348-per cent increase in xylazine detections in drug samples it received from B.C. law enforcement agencies.
The number of Drug Analysis Service (DAS) samples containing xylazine went from 58 in 2019, to 99 in 2020, to 70 in 2021 before surging to 260 last year.
“Adulterants like xylazine are tremendously concerning,” B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said.
While fentanyl continues to be the main driver of the toxic drug crisis, Lapointe said xylazine has been detected in 163 drug poisoning deaths since 2020 — including 10 in 2020, 67 in 2021 and 79 in 2022 — an almost seven-fold increase in two years.
The most recent statistics show xylazine was identified in seven B.C. toxic drug deaths in January.
“The message in all of this is that the supply is chaotic,” Lapointe told Global News.
“It is not safe. Any use can result in serious harm or death.”