The White House on Wednesday issued an unprecedented warning about xylazine, the veterinary tranquilizer increasingly found in the illicit opioid supply. Beginning today, the substance will be classified as an “emerging drug threat” — the first designation of its kind.
The announcement and accompanying notification to Congress from Rahul Gupta, the White House’s top drug policy official, comes as xylazine — also known as “tranq” — continues to spread throughout U.S. cities. In Philadelphia, especially, it has caused a public health crisis by causing overdoses and painful, dangerous skin wounds in people who inject drugs adulterated with xylazine.
The announcement has little immediate impact, Gupta conceded in a press call with reporters. But the White House will publish a “whole-of-government, nationwide plan” to address xylazine within 90 days, he said. And moving forward, Gupta added, the White House and Congress will work to evaluate adding xylazine to the controlled substances schedule, as well as improve testing, data collection, and public awareness.
Xylazine took root in the Puerto Rican drug supply in the 2000s and started to show up in Philadelphia in the mid-2010s. The rise of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl in recent years has propelled the use of xylazine; some dealers add the sedative to extend the high of fentanyl. But xylazine is so powerful it can knock people out for hours, in addition to causing the stubborn wounds. It also is making overdoses harder to treat and making it harder for some people to reduce illicit drug use.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has said it found xylazine in 7% of fentanyl pills and 23% of fentanyl powder seized by law enforcement in 2022.
Because of the risks, BTNX, a Canada-based company that makes fentanyl test strips, recently started offering test strips for xylazine. The hope is that health departments, grassroots harm-reduction groups, and individual drug users can test substances for the presence or tranq and avoid its dangers.
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