Fears Mount as Increasing Number of Opioid Overdoses Seem Tied to Naloxone-Resistant Tranquilizer
A recent breaking news report from Wisconsin is just one of many that ties in with numerous federal warnings put out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The substance of the warnings? Xylazine-related overdoses are cropping up across the Midwest and the East Coast, posing heightened risks for fatal overdoses connected to opioid addiction.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also put out similar reports, effectively sounding the alarm on the state and federal level that naloxone-resistant opioid overdoses may be the next chapter in America’s vicious, ever-expanding opioid epidemic.
A Breaking News Story Out of Wisconsin
A January 25th, 2023 headline in the La Crosse Tribune reads: “Nine overdose deaths under investigation in La Crosse, ‘tranq’ may be in play.” The article details how, in just the first few weeks of 2023, La Crosse’s relatively small population of 52,185 lost nine residents due to suspicious opioid overdoses that local law enforcement highly suspected were not just opioid overdoses.
“This is either a much more potent opiate, or there may be something intermixed with it, some sort of sedative that would make it less effective to our usual treatments.”
The article cites a local medical official, Dr. Chris Eberlein, an emergency medicine practitioner with Gundersen Health System: “This is either a much more potent opiate, or there may be something intermixed with it, some sort of sedative that would make it less effective to our usual treatments. This really highlights the need for rescue breathing and assisting the patient so they don’t have respiratory arrest or cardiac arrest, which kills people.” Eberlein discussed how concerning it is that new, hybrid strains of opioids making their way across the illicit drug market are so potent that current emergency response practices (naloxone) are not working to save overdosing addicts.
Local La Crosse law enforcement also spoke to the heightened risk factors, urging local community members to do everything they could to save addicts’ lives and not fear legal repercussions. Speaking to this point, assistant chief of police Jason Melby said, “I know there is a fear that goes along with calling the police to have us come – our role is to get there and make sure this person is safe and reverse any effects of the drug. The least they need to worry about is us actually taking some level of law enforcement action.” Melby referred to Wisconsin’s Good Samaritan Law and Act 33 (2017), which is there to protect “aiders” and “aided persons” from criminal prosecution.
La Crosse and other Wisconsin towns will certainly step up their efforts to keep community members safe. But what happens if hybrid opioid drugs spread across the nation? And what makes these drugs so lethal, to the point where the drugs cause an overdose that does not respond to naloxone?
Xylazine is a non-opioid veterinary tranquilizer not approved for human use, yet it’s been linked to increasing overdose deaths nationwide. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that xylazine is often added to illicit opioids to increase potency and prolong the effects of an opioid high. Sadly, xylazine further depresses the user’s respiratory system, leading to increased risks for overdoses and a higher likelihood that the individual’s body will not respond to emergency naloxone medication.
Colloquially referred to as “tranq” for its tranquilizing effect, xylazine is a central nervous system depressant that can cause drowsiness and amnesia and, in addition to slowing breathing, can also slow heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously low levels.
Federal Data Highlights Risk Factors Regarding Xylazine-Tainted Opioid Drugs
NIDA also reports that xylazine-related opioid overdose deaths are on the rise. Quoting NIDA researchers who gathered and published critical data on the subject, “From 2015 to 2020, the percentage of all drug overdose deaths involving xylazine increased from 2% to 26% in Pennsylvania. Xylazine was involved in 19% of all drug overdose deaths in Maryland in 2021 and 10% in Connecticut in 2020.”
That report may be just the tip of the iceberg because toxicology reports and coroner’s offices only recently began testing for xylazine in addicts who had overdosed on opioids. For example, Cook County, Illinois, recently began testing every overdose fatality for xylazine, and the results were shocking. Quoting the research authors, “A total of 210 xylazine-associated deaths were reported during the study period. Xylazine-associated deaths increased throughout the study period; incidence peaked in October 2021. The percentage of fentanyl-associated deaths involving xylazine also increased throughout the study period, reaching a peak of 12.2% of fentanyl-related deaths assessed by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office during October 2021.” If all U.S. counties begin testing for xylazine as Cook County has, Americans will almost certainly become more aware of the next dangerous chapter in the opioid epidemic.
The Importance of Seeking Help for Addiction
The Drug Enforcement Administration put out a detailed report in October 2022 highlighting the risk factors connected to xylazine abuse and the fact that xylazine may be present in an opioid drug supply without the user knowing.
While the DEA report can help Americans better inform themselves on current drug trends and the threats that addicts face because of an ever-changing drug landscape, addicts are still at heightened risk of dying from opioid use, even when informed. That is why, now more than ever, people who misuse drugs and cannot stop on their own must seek help at qualified residential treatment centers as soon as possible.
Family members and friends of addicts must do everything possible to get their loved ones into treatment. The spike in naloxone-resistant xylazine-related opioid overdoses has shown that the stakes have never been higher, and the risks have never been greater.
- LCT. “Nine overdose deaths under investigation in La Crosse, ‘tranq’ may be in play.” La Crosse Tribune, 2023. lacrossetribune.com
- NIDA. “Xylazine.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022. nida.nih.gov
- CDC. “Notes From the Field: Xylazine-Related Deaths—Cook County, Illinois, 2017–2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. cdc.gov
- DEA. “The Growing Threat of Xylazine and its Mixture with Illicit Drugs.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2022. dea.gov