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Pennsylvania State Crackdown on Xylazine: The Animal Tranquilizer Fueling the Opioid Crisis in the US

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Access to xylazine, an animal tranquilizer found mixed with opioids in the illicit drug supply, is being restricted by several states. Xylazine is classified by Pennsylvania as a controlled substance, and regulations on it have been tightened, effective this month. As a schedule 3 drug in Pennsylvania, xylazine has moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.

Law enforcement is allowed by this decision to prosecute people for illegally possessing or selling the drug, but veterinarians will still be able to access it for work reasons. Xylazine’s scheduling will help to limit theft and diversion by requiring tighter record-keeping and secure storage. Ohio and West Virginia have followed Pennsylvania in classifying xylazine as a controlled substance.

Already a Schedule 1 controlled substance in Florida, it’s illegal to possess or sell xylazine. The US Office of National Drug Control Policy has named xylazine an “emerging threat” when mixed with fentanyl. It appears that the practice of mixing opioids with xylazine started in Puerto Rico and has been happening in the US since about 2008.

The prevalence of xylazine has only increased since it was first used in the illicit drug supply, with the DEA saying that it has been found in 48 of the 50 states. In 2021, about 90% of opioid samples tested in Philadelphia contained xylazine. 90 deaths in 2017 and 575 deaths in 2021 in Pennsylvania were reported due to overdoses of xylazine.

An emergency classification of xylazine as a Schedule 3 drug was authorized in Ohio in March 2023. In 2018, Florida classified xylazine as a Schedule 1 drug. The Combating Illicit Xylazine Act was introduced in late March by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, leading to the classification of the drug as a Schedule 3 substance nationwide.

Used to sedate cows, horses, sheep, and other animals, xylazine was first approved for veterinary use in 1971. There is an increase in xylazine being added to fentanyl and heroin. There is an effort by officials to determine how much of xylazine is diverted from veterinary uses and how much is manufactured illicitly.

800 deaths were caused by xylazine in the US in 2020, and over 3,000 deaths were reported in 2021 due to xylazine. $11 million was requested by the White House’s Office of NDCP (National Drug Control Policy) to tackle xylazine’s spread. Whether Congress should classify xylazine as a controlled substance is also being considered as part of the strategy.

An increase in illicit drug supply involving xylazine and growing deaths due to overdoses of xylazine are concerning. Xylazine’s scheduling in several states is an important step in addressing the problem of its use in the illicit drug supply. Now law enforcement will be at ease to better regulate, control, and contain the drug, which hopefully will lead to more prosecutions of those who illegally possess or sell it.

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