Xylazine, a tranquilizer most commonly prescribed to horses, has recently been linked to several human overdose cases in Kentucky. Local CBS News station WLKY reported on the phenomenon mere days after an addiction and mental health crisis in Louisville jails made headlines. The specific number of xylazine human overdoses wasn’t released. New drugs, some of them designer drugs, are reported regularly in the Bluegrass State. Even fentanyl, popularly noted as one of the most overdose-correlated drugs on the street today, is one of them.
Related: What is Xylazine?
Recreational Xylazine Drug Abuse in Kentucky
According to Dr. Ashley Webb, director of the Kentucky Poison Control Center, Xylazine’s popping up in overdose cases. Webb goes as far as to call it a “big problem” among those struggling with drug addictions. In an interview with WLKY, Webb said it’s probably a matter of time before the problem gets bigger.
In recent years, Xylazine’s become a recreational sedative nationwide in small but growing numbers. She cited Philadelphia and Delaware as two examples of places where Xylazine’s seen increased recreational use. This can be confirmed for Philadelphia via a 2021 study published in the Injury Prevention volume of BMJ. Delaware Public Media has also reported similar trends in New Castle County, Del.
“At this point in Kentucky, we haven’t seen a lot of cases, but we’re aware that it’s going to come in this direction,” Webb explained. “We’re seeing more of it in fentanyl around the country and combined with illicit drugs.”
Xylazine is found not only in fentanyl but also in heroin samples confiscated by law enforcement. The sedative drug is also showing up in pills and powders more often for Delaware in particular. About 15% of evidence tested from October 2021 to July 2022 revealed the presence of Xylazine. When combined with fentanyl, though, Webb said it can cause skin ulcers and raise the likelihood of fatal overdose.
What Effects Does Xylazine Have on Humans?
Xylazine is able to enhance sedation when combined with fentanyl. This can easily cause a person to become unresponsive. It can mitigate their blood pressure, decrease their heart rate and exacerbate the effects of a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl is already prevalent in today’s street drug supply. So much so that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency declared May 9, 2022, the first-ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day, which is separate from International Overdose Awareness Day.
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and about 100 times stronger than morphine. Cutting the synthetic opioid with Xylazine is only making the trend of fatal overdoses. Webb has also cautioned that, because Xylazine isn’t an opioid, those who overdose cannot be saved with Narcan.
Fatal Overdose Probability
Dr. James Beckman, a veterinarian at Gas Light Equine, often uses xylazine to treat horses. Beckman said it’s ludicrous for human beings to use this sedative. The obvious problem is that since Xylazine is intended for animal use – for example, to sedate them for medical procedures – it only takes a small amount to kill a person. Trace amounts of the drug (16,000 nanograms per milliliter) were discovered in some people who died from an overdose.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to try this in humans,” Beckman said. “It’s a terrible idea.”
Louisville’s Addiction and Mental Health Crisis
While Webb didn’t provide information about when and where this problem was popping up most, related problems have been highlighted in Kentucky’s jail system. Louisville Metro Department of Corrections (LMDC) Director Jerry Collins said correctional facilities in the city are experiencing more than their fair share of the crisis. He emphasized the mental health component thereof in his interview with Spectrum News. From April 2022 through the first week of October 2022, jail staff intervened 175 times to prevent suicides, Collins said. He links it, in part, to drug and alcohol addiction.
“I believe jails should be built for the challenges that they face, which is becoming the biggest mental health facility in the county and the biggest detox facility in the county,” Collins told Spectrum News. “That’s not what jails are made for, and this jail definitely wasn’t made for that.”
LMDC just recently placed Narcan in all of its dorms because it has proven necessary. The staff has to be ready to intervene at a moment’s notice to stop what seems like a rampant overdose. LMDC also has contracts with Wellpath, its medical and mental health services provider. The mental health and addiction issues have gotten so bad that the local ACLU chapter called for the termination of any and all contracts between the two. Collins claims, however, that LMDC’s “constantly evaluating” the terms of its agreement with Wellpath.
“Wellpath is actually performing within the scope of the last contract they signed,” Collins said. “However, what we’re looking at now is having our healthcare professionals, medical and mental health, evaluate deliverables as the landscape of this crisis has changed, the deliverables of our next contract that we’re going to ask for.”
Kentucky’s Opioid Crisis
The opioid crisis is proving to be unique from one area of the country to another. This is merely the latest example of how different states and cities suffer differently. Another example we recently elucidated was a chronicle of how the opioid epidemic developed in Knoxville, Tenn.
Regardless, those in the throes of addiction are at, perhaps, greater risk of a fatal overdose today than ever in America’s history. The rise of the fentanyl trend to such prominence has proven that. As has the increased potency of several street drugs, even marijuana. Novel trends like the use of Xylazine as an additive for fentanyl or heroin are just another sign that it’s urgent for substance abusers to get help.