More street drugs are being spiked with the animal tranquilizer xylazine, according to Health Canada
Health Canada says it is receiving an increasing number of illicit drug samples containing xylazine — a veterinary sedative, relaxant and pain reliever not approved for human use.
The animal tranquilizer first appeared in 2019 as an additive to opioids and cocaine, according to a federal agency report, and is most commonly mixed with fentanyl. Xylazine is typically prescribed for dogs, cats, horses, and cattle, and can act as a depressant on the central nervous and respiratory systems.
“It can cause unsafe drops in blood pressure and heart rate, and when taken with other tranquilizers like opioids increases the risk of overdose,” said Samuel Tobias, a graduate student at the BC Center for Substance Use.
Health Canada’s report compiles illicit drug samples submitted to the agency’s Drug Analysis Service (DAS) by law enforcement agencies across the country. The health agency says the data may not be fully representative of drug seizures and substances on the market.
Across Canada, the data shows that the number of xylazine identifications jumped from 205 in 2019 to 2,324 in 2022.
BC accounts for 21.2 percent of those samples and saw the number of samples containing xylazine quadruple from 58 in 2019 to 260 in 2022. In four years, a total of 487 samples were contaminated with xylazine.
In a statement to CBC, Health Canada said xylazine “has also been detected in a portion of opioid-related deaths.”
Health Canada advises that overdose reversal drugs such as naloxone are less effective in people who have used xylazine.
Tobias explained that Xylazine is not an opioid, meaning that naloxone – an opioid antagonist – cannot counteract it.
“If someone has consumed a lot of xylazine, which causes them to be in a lowered state of consciousness, using naloxone will not wake them up,” Tobias said.
Benzodiazepines are more likely to contaminate BC drugs
Tobias says xylazine isn’t nearly as common as other fentanyl additives like benzodiazepines, accounting for less than five percent of opioid samples submitted for drug screening.
“The prevalence of xylazine in samples has increased slightly over the past year and we’ve seen more of it in the last three months, but it’s still below five percent of the samples examined,” Tobias said.
Nevertheless, Tobias warns against consuming the drug because of possible extreme side effects and an increased risk of overdose.
In addition to a drop in blood pressure and a slow heart rate, Tobias also mentions significant tissue damage, power failures and memory loss.
“The wounds [from damaged tissue] are big and deep enough, can sometimes result in legs having to be amputated,” Tobias said.
According to Tobias, extreme side effects have been seen primarily in places like Philadelphia and Puerto Rico, where xylazine is more common.
Tobias says the unpredictability of the unregulated drug supply can be deadly and advises getting all illicit drugs tested.
“For people who depend on an unregulated drug supply, drug-checking services are one of the ways they can find out what’s in their supply before they use it,” Tobias said.