ASAP distributes new xylazine test strips

Sherri Jewett

The Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress has begun distributing test strips to help drug users determine whether a drug contains an animal sedative that federal law enforcement officials have said is being increasingly mixed with other illegal drugs and could increase the chances of unintentional overdoses and death.

Xylazine, also known by its street name “tranq,” is a veterinary drug first developed in the 1960s as a sedative and muscle relaxer for animals including cattle, horses and elk, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, the drug, which is not approved for human use, has been popping up in “an increasing number of illicit drug mixtures” and “has also been detected in a growing number of overdose deaths,” according to the DEA.

ASAP recently received an initial shipment of 50 xylazine test strips from the nonprofit Overdose Lifeline and started distributing them through its NaloxBoxes, said ASAP Executive Director Sherri Jewett. As of Thursday, the organization was awaiting another shipment of the test strips.

A NaloxBox is an emergency overdose kit attached to the outside wall of a public building with 24/7 accessibility. The NaloxBoxes also contain doses of naloxone and fentanyl test strips, which ASAP has been distributing to the public for a couple of years.

Naloxone is a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose that is often sold under the brand name Narcan.

“We’ve also added xylazine test strips,” Jewett said. “…We have test strips for that drug too because they’re both so dangerous for people. Fentanyl remains the worst, but both are dangerous.”

The update from ASAP comes just days after Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a bill by Rep. Jennifer Meltzer, R-Shelbyville, that criminalizes possession and dealing of xylazine.

The new law makes possession of xylazine without a prescription a Class A misdemeanor or Level 6 felony if the person has a prior unrelated conviction. An individual can face up to a Level 4 felony for dealing the drug.

The drug can still be used for veterinary purposes and possessed by pharmacists and veterinarians.

The DEA says that testing done at its field divisions across the country show that xylazine-positive overdose deaths “have experienced a significant jump from 2020 to 2021,” according to a DEA report.

The agency reported “a minimum” of 3,089 xylazine-positive overdose deaths across the U.S. in 2021, up from 808 in 2020, the report states.

While the South experienced the largest percentage increase of any region of the country, from 198 in 2020 to 580 in 2021, the Midwest saw a six-fold increase from 57 deaths in 2020 to 351 in 2021, according to DEA figures.

Mike Gannon, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA’s Indianapolis Field Office, told The Republic last year it is hard to know how prevalent the drug is in Indiana, but emphasized that it is often found with fentanyl and other illegal substances.

In 2021, almost every xylazine-related death reported in Marion County also involved fentanyl, Gannon said.

Locally, xylazine is included among the substances that the Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office tests for, said Bartholomew County Deputy Coroner Jay Frederick.

The Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office said last year that xylazine has been detected in some local toxicology testing but has not been common.

Currently, xylazine is most commonly found in combination with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin that officials say is largely responsible for a historic rise in overdose deaths across the country, including Bartholomew County. The veterinary drug also has been detected in mixtures containing cocaine, heroin and several other substances, according to the DEA report.

Drug users often are not aware that the drugs they are consuming contain xylazine, officials said. Though not an opioid, xylazine can have similar effects, including sedation, a slowed respiratory rate, among others. Users who inject xylazine or drug mixtures with xylazine also can develop soft tissue injuries that can lead to necrotic tissue and may result in amputation, the DEA report states.

Adding another danger to the drug, xylazine overdoses cannot be reversed by naloxone because it is not an opioid and does not target the same receptors in the body.

Locally, officials have said harm-reduction measures like test strips and naloxone is to help keep people alive, not condone drug use.

“We continue to try to monitor any opportunity that is out there that might be available to avoid overdoses, and (xylazine test strips) were one of the newer ones,” Jewett said.