Advocates call for more testing kits for xylazine

Click to play video: 'Xylazine test strips the latest tool against accidental overdoses'
Xylazine test strips the latest tool against accidental overdoses
An American company has unveiled test strips to identify Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer recently turning up in street drugs. As Meghan Cobb reports, advocates say it would help but know they aren’t the only solution to reduce the rise in drug poisonings. – Apr 7, 2023

With a powerful tranquilizer infiltrating the illicit opioid supply in Canada and the United States, people who use opioids are seeking ways to test their drugs before they partake.

Shannon Hart, a harm reduction expert, said since xylazine – also known as tranq – has increased the likelihood of overdose.

“We’ve been seeing people dropping like flies, people that normally know their doses of substances,” Hart told Global News. “But because of these harmful adulterants being introduced, it’s creating more overdose and destruction in the community.”

Xylazine, a sedative and analgesic normally used in veterinary medicine to sedate large animals such as cattle or horses, has been wreaking havoc in parts of the U.S., notably in Philadelphia, where it was found in 90 per cent of dope samples tested in the city in 2021, according to data released by Substance Use Philadelphia.

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Drug testing has become a vital tool to determine if street drugs are laced with substances like fentanyl.

Tests for xylazine have only recently come to market, and are yet to be widely available.

BTNX Inc. CEO Iqbal Sunderani was at a harm reduction conference in Puerto Rico when he learned about the damage the drug was creating, especially in Philadelphia.

“We quickly evaluated this – our R&D (department) – and identified a particular antibody that binds to the drug. We were able to put it on a strip and got some samples made and we sent them down to Philadelphia Health,” Sunderani told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Blood Tribe issues drug alert for Xylazine'
Blood Tribe issues drug alert for Xylazine

Independent testing proved the efficacy of the test strips.

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“It does inform the user of the presence of the fentanyl or xylazine so they can take effective measures. An educated, well informed user can make decisions,” Sunderani said.

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Repeated xylazine exposure can cause significant harm. It does not respond to naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of opiates, and makes overdoses from opioids mixed with this sedative more challenging to treat, McDonald said.

People who have taken drugs containing xylazine can also develop severe, necrotic skin ulcers, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These sores have led to amputations among some repeated users in the U.S., according to a January report in the New York Times.

Test strips are designed to be easy enough to use by just about anyone. But getting those strips have been a challenge.

Hart, who also works with the Street Cats grassroots group, has had to search far and wide to source the testing strips that cost about $1 each in 100-count boxes.

“It’s very much get what you can when you can, how you can, just by talking to other people in the community. But it would be really nice to see them become more accessible and more affordable so that other nonprofits can hand them out freely,” she said.

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Click to play video: 'Ask an Expert: Xylazine in our drug supply'
Ask an Expert: Xylazine in our drug supply

While BTNX is undergoing federal approvals for the test device, Sunderani said his company is working with other Canadian organizations.

“We have got a request from the Vancouver Coastal Health on submitting some samples, which we will do I think early next week, and they will do an independent evaluation and see how effective these test,” the BTNX CEO said.

What tests they can get, Hart has been “handing them out regularly.

“But the demand — we can’t get enough strips.”

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