DENVER (KDVR) — Experts say a pharmaceutical drug infiltrating the street supply could prompt a public health crisis, as it can lead to deadly results like fentanyl.

It’s called xylazine. Known by its street name, “tranq,” the so-called “zombie drug” is hitting other parts of the country hard in overdose deaths.

It’s a veterinary tranquilizer with the same sedative effects as opioids. It’s cheap like fentanyl, so it’s being used to cut a lot of other drugs, most of the time without the consumer knowing at all.

‘Tranq’ has negative effects on humans

Sam Bourdon is the Harm Reduction Grant Fund manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and explained why it’s known as the “zombie drug.”

“It causes sleepiness, relaxation, pain relief. However, there are some really negative effects in human consumption. That big one that you may have heard about being the skin ulcers, lesions, wounds that really come to be because xylazine constricts blood vessels significantly and inhibits blood flow to that tissue,” Bourdon said.

The similarities in how the drug market can and does use xylazine are similar to fentanyl.

“The potency of fentanyl, it was added to other opioids to kind of cut and further the drug supply of something like heroin, for example. The same is true of xylazine, because it kind of elicits the same sedative effects of an opioid, and so it can be cut with an opioid and enhance the potency of that substance,” Bourdon said.

Xylazine overdose deaths increasing

There have been two xylazine overdose deaths reported in Colorado since mid-2021. According to the Food and Drug Administration, xylazine overdose deaths are most common in the Northeast.

The South has the largest increase, reporting a 193% increase in xylazine instances, followed by the West with an almost 112% increase. Drug Enforcement Adminsitration laboratory findings also indicate that xylazine was most commonly found in polydrug mixtures, often in mixtures containing fentanyl.

This is how xylazine overdose deaths break down by region:

Region20202021% increase
Xylazine overdose deaths by region

Experts are watching to see if this drug is moving its way into Colorado.

“The illicit drug market is extremely unpredictable,” Bourdon said. “We’re really conscious that there’s not an end game when they start attending really well to fentanyl. We have to be conscious that this issue may continue to evolve.”

FDA to restrict xylazine imports

The FDA has said it will restrict imports of xylazine, although the effect it will have on this issue is unknown.

“In other states, there have been attempts to criminalize further or kind of monitor the supply of legal xylazine in the country. However, it has yet to be seen how much that will affect the evolution of this issue,” Bourdon said.

Unlike opioids, naloxone or Narcan won’t help with a xylazine overdose, although it should still be used in those circumstances because its main form of consumption is when it’s cut with other drugs.