Deadly animal tranquilizer is popping up in street drugs and Narcan can’t reverse it, officials say

CHICAGO — A tranquilizer used to sedate horses, cattle, and other animals is making its way into the illicit drug market, secretly added to heroin and cocaine by dealers trying to stretch their profits, authorities say.

But unlike another powerful drug that dealers use to cut narcotics, fentanyl, xylazine is not an opioid, and its effects cannot be reversed by administering Narcan.

Cook County had never recorded a xylazine-related death until 2018 when it had one case. Last year, there were 162, tweeted Luis Agostini, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s public information officer in Chicago.

Among the Chicagoans who have been lost to xylazine this year is Scott Lennox, the 21-year-old who was accused of making threats against gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey during last year’s campaign.

Lennox died on April 7 at home in Old Town, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, which recently determined that he suffered an accidental overdose of fentanyl and xylazine.

That combination is increasingly common, officials say. Nearly a quarter of the fentanyl seized by the DEA last year contained xylazine, CBS reported recently.

“Data shows that just about every xylazine-related death reported in Cook County also involves fentanyl. Purchasing drugs illegally – on the street or online without prescription – is a dangerous gamble,” Agostini tweeted last summer.

Around this time last year, Cook County had confirmed 41 xylazine-related deaths, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar told NBC’s affiliate in Terre Haute at the time. That number has more than doubled to 84 after outstanding toxicology tests came back, according to the medical examiner’s online data portal.

As of Monday, the office had confirmed 47 xylazine deaths in 2023, a number that will rise as test results come back.

“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said recently.

Between August 2021 and August 2022, 107,735 Americans died from drug poisonings, with 66 percent involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the DEA.

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