Meet Tranq, the ‘New Kid’ in Town. He Doesn’t Play Nice

It’s making street drugs even more dangerous and it’s making its way to Central New York

There’s a new kid in town and he doesn’t play nice. His street name is tranq. That’s short for xylazine. This veterinary horse tranquilizer causes drowsiness and amnesia. It depresses breathing, slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Combined with other central nervous depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids, tranq spells disaster.

Xylazine was developed in the 1960s as an anesthetic for veterinary procedures. It was tried in human trials but caused severe respiratory depression and dangerously lowered blood pressure. So it was not approved for human use. It’s not a controlled substance; therefore it has not been monitored closely by the FDA. It was first used by as a recreational drug in Puerto Rico in the 2000s. It began to take off as a cheap filler for drugs in 2018.

Drug dealers are adulterating opioids such as fentanyl and heroin with tranq. This lengthens the euphoric effect. But the depressive effects make it easier for users to overdose. Especially if other substances such as alcohol, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, gabapentin, methadone and prescription opioids are also on board.

The prolonged period of stupor renders users helpless to fight off crimes like rape or robbery. When a user does wake up, they often emerge craving narcotics because their opioids have already worn off. Another “benefit” of cutting drugs with tranq is that it’s cheaper, allowing dealers to sell at a lower price.

Tranq is not reversed by naloxone. In case of an overdose, naloxone should still be administered to reverse the effect of any opioids also on board.

This drug can be injected, snorted, inhaled or swallowed. Injected tranq can lead to skin ulcers and abscesses. These skin infections are often worse than the run-of-the-mill MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections, which are already pretty bad. Tranq wounds develop thick black crusts called eschars and the underlying tissue turns dead (necrotic). These infections are tough to treat and sometimes lead to amputation. A Google search for “tranq skin infections” images will reveal some of the horror if you need a visual.

How common is tranq? It has been detected in 36 states and the District of Columbia. In Philadelphia, more than 90% of street drugs test positive. In New York City, the number is 25%. And if it’s NYC, you know it’s coming to Central New York. In fact, it’s already here. In November 2022, the Onondaga County Health Department reported 16 overdoses in one 24-hour period, felt to be related to tranq-containing dope.

I don’t have the answer to the opioid epidemic. But I hope this article raises awareness of this new threat.

Eva Briggs is a retired medical doctor who practiced in Central New York for several decades. She lives in Marcellus.