Skin-rotting ‘zombie drug’ wreaking havoc on East Coast appears to have contributed to Oahu overdose death

Experts say Xylazine prolongs the high from opioids.
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 4:57 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 28, 2023 at 9:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Xylazine is the newest drug sweeping the East Coast, killing so many users that federal officials have issued an alert about the dangers ― and prompting new concern among Hawaii authorities.

Xylazine, known as “tranq” or the “zombie drug,” is a horse tranquilizer.

Dealers are mixing it with heroin and the more powerful fentanyl, making both dangerous drugs even more deadly.

Experts say Xylazine prolongs the high from opioids.

Gary Yabuta, of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said it gives users a “calming sensation” and is cheaper than fentanyl so it’s used as an additive.

The Drug Enforcement Administration issued an alert about the use of Xylazine, saying it has been recovered in 48 of the 50 states, including Hawaii.

An overdose death last year in Honolulu could be tied to the combination of Xylazine and Fentanyl, authorities said.

“That’s under investigation as we speak,” Yabuta said.

Hawaii is typically a few years behind the East Coast when it comes to drug trends so health officials are preparing.

“It’s slowly making its way here,” said John Valera, acting administrator of the state Department of Health’s Drug Abuse Division.

In 2021, Philadelphia law enforcement reported that 90% of opioid samples on the street contained Xylazine.

That city now has mobile medical units staffed with nurses to help those suffering from a ghastly side effect of Xylazine ― rotting skin at the injection sites.

“This is sort of a wake-up call for us to start to do surveillance,” Valera said.

He added that DOH is working to coordinate efforts between first responders and the various medical examiners’ offices in Hawaii to recognize the signs and test for the drug when there are overdose deaths.

“Xylazine is not necessarily part of your routine tox screens,” Valera said, “You have to really look for it to find it.”

While Xylazine is being combined with opioids, it is not an opioid.

So the antidote Naloxone does not reverse the effects of Xylazine, which impacts breathing.

“You’ll still have depressed respiratory breathing,” Yabuta said, adding there is currently no medicine available to reverse the effects of Xylazine.

Xylazine is not illegal because veterinarians need it, but some states are looking to regulate it.

Equine veterinarian Manuel Himenes, Jr., of Oahu Equine Veterinary Clinic, uses it as part of a mixture to sedate 1,000-pound horses who need medical attention.

He is shocked that people would put it in their bodies.

“There’s no label for human usage,” Himenes said, comparing its use to “Russian roulette.”