Heroin Just Got A lot More Deadly | The New Opioid Crisis

The opioid landscape is changing with additives increasing potency and fatality, leaving many addicts fighting for their lives.

Street dope always contained adulterants but the synthetic drugs that have made their way into The United States and Canada recently take it to the next level, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH). The veterinary tranquilizer xylazine correlates to the increase in and trends of unintentional deaths from heroin and fentanyl overdoses, with many of the detections coming from Philadelphia, PA.

Drug supplies in Philadelphia have been increasing in xylazine-cut dope over the past 10-years, according to the PDPH. According to the DEA, The Philadelphia Medical Examiners Office provided 10-years of overdose data from 2010-to 2019. Only 2% of fatal heroin and fentanyl overdose cases from Xylazine-laced dope through the years 2010-to 2015 to 31% of the 858 fatal overdoses that occurred in 2019. Information regarding xylazine is limited and sparse in the United States but often associated with consequential outcomes. The risks of xylazine-laced dope should be subject to testing and monitored whenever possible.

“It’s been a structural shift, and it’s caught on,” said anthropologist Philippe Bourgois of UCLA.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), xylazine is a drug used in veterinary medicine as a sedative with analgesic and muscle relaxant properties. Many different animal species, such as cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, deer, rats, and other animals, are given xylazine, handling during diagnostic and surgical procedures, relieving pain, or acting as a local anesthetic. Xylazine has an increased presence as an adulterant in drug abuse mixtures and substances. The Bayer Company first synthesized the drug in 1962. Since its creation, it has had studies done for potential use as an analgesic, which helps pain, a hypnotic that helps users calm down, and an anesthetic, which causes numbing. There have been clinical trials, but they terminated the study due to its severe hypotension and central nervous system depression.

Xylazine allegedly emerged in Puerto Rico, either used by itself or mixed with cocaine or heroin. According to Huffington Post, news outlets called it the Zombie Drug because of its reported sedating effect that caused users to walk around like creatures from a horror film, according to Huffington Post. National geographic even covered the spread of this synthetic drug in Puerto Rico.  

According to a Filter Magazine interview, a former American heroin user living in Puerto Rico. She traveled to a Midwest state when tar heroin was prevalent, “There is something wrong with the dope here,” said the former addict. Her body had gotten used to tranq dope and how it was supposed to feel.

Testing and monitoring drug supply are crucial for public health and safety, especially the local drug supply, as it helps public-health agencies and harm reduction groups respond appropriately to each incidence, according to Filter Magazine. If they have access to the data, they can notify these healthcare providers that those overdosing might need more than just Naloxone, which is an opioid antagonist and blocker that reverses the action of opioid overdoses. These other intervention medicines and support measures include the use of intravenous fluids, atropine which is an anti-psychotic, blood pressure support, and extended hospital observation because of cardiac effects, according to Connecticut Health Officials.

According to Stat News, an online news outlet that tracks statistics, xylazine laced tranq dope increases overdose risk. This drug also is shown to increase resistance to naloxone overdose reversal treatment. Using other substances with xylazine increases the risk of infection and makes them more susceptible to wounds, according to anecdotal evidence from people in the drug community.

“I got some friends out here that got really torn up by it, you know they got holes in them, abscesses, basically it’s like the body is rotting,” said an anonymous resident to the UCLA research team.

A harm reductionist spoke with the research team regarding clients they see in their line of work, “When we started to see way more people coming in with necrotizing skin and soft tissue issues. The number of medical complaints related to xylazine was pretty astounding and terrifying. Xylazine wounds are a whole other kind of just horror,” said anonymous harm reductionist to the UCLA research team.

The new wave of the opioid crisis is here to stay and looks to be growing at an alarming rate.