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Xylazine Overdose Deaths Tripled In U.S. In 2021; It's 'Designed To Kill'

Mental illness and heroin marked the life of Amber Webber, an artist whose soulful paintings evoke Picasso. After stints in rehab, Webber hoped to find a part-time job and enroll in a graphic arts program at a South Florida college. Last year, the 35-year-old disappeared into the bathroom of a Miami-area group home. A roommate discovered her lifeless body 15 minutes later. The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled she died from fentanyl and xylazine — the potent animal tranquilizer known as “tranq” that is notorious for causing deep stupors and rotting flesh wounds that sometimes lead to amputations. A third substance contributed to her death: meclonazepam, a drug with anti-anxiety properties developed to treat parasitic worms. Webber’s death reflects the growing toll of fentanyl-tranquilizer mixes. More than 3,000 people died of xylazine-related overdoses in the U.S. in 2021 — triple the fatalities recorded the previous year, says the Washington Post.


It’s also evidence of the unpredictable nature of the nation’s drug supply, dominated by fentanyl, but mixed with an ever-morphing array of synthetic substances that drug dealers use to stretch their supplies. Many of those substances, like xylazine, pose their own health dangers and complicate efforts to reverse overdoses.

“It’s xylazine now. It could be something else tomorrow,” said Ryan McNeil, a public health and medicine professor at Yale University. “That’s the reality of the volatility of the drug supply.” Webber’s family suspects she had no clue that her final hit of drugs contained xylazine or fentanyl. Her brother, Kurt Webber, 53, who battles opioid addiction himself, blames her death on the “trash market” of illegal drugs. He lives in Palmyra, Pa., where xylazine has emerged as a way for drug dealers to extend their supplies of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that in 2021 killed over 70,000 people in the U.S. "It’s all designed to kill — this fentanyl, this xylazine, and all these other little spinoff drugs,” Kurt Webber said. Fentanyl, which has largely replaced heroin in many markets, is powerful but fast acting. The xylazine gives it “legs,” extending the feeling of sedation by slowing one’s heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. Many users don’t realize their drugs contain xylazine, which can knock them out and make them susceptible to falls, robberies or rapes. Because it is not an opioid, xylazine does not respond to naloxone, the drug used to revive people who are overdosing from opioids.

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