Xylazine – New Risk for Teen Overdose

The DEA issued a national alert for the deadly drug Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, that has entered the illegal drug supply. Sometimes referred to as tranq, the drug is paired with fentanyl in clandestine labs that mainly produce fake pills. Fentanyl is the drug that has been pushing the overdose death rate skyward to 109,000 in 2022. While Narcan has saved thousands of lives by reversing the effects of a fentanyl overdose, there is no such life-saving drug to reverse Xylaxine. How does the impact of Xylazine in street drugs pose a risk for teens and why should parents be concerned? In this blog post, we’ll explore how the illegal drug supply chain reaches our youth and what protection measures are available to parents.

It is a good guess you have never heard of Xylazine or ‘tranq’

The epicenter of the newly trending drug Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer sometimes called tranq or the zombie drug, is Philadelphia. The DEA issued their national alert on this drug in March 2023.

Xylazine, also known as “Tranq” or the Zombie drug, is a powerful sedative that has become a growing concern in our communities. This drug belongs to a class of medications called alpha-2 adrenergic agonists, which are typically used in veterinary medicine to sedate large animals. However, Xylazine has found its way into the hands of humans, leading to serious consequences.

Unlike Fentanyl, Xylazine has no reversal drug. The two drugs are usually paired together, sending the risks up substantially for a fatality on a high school campus. Very few parents will be aware of the name of this drug and its deadly far-reaching tentacles. Even schools won’t be aware initially.

A ‘Perfect Storm’ for the proliferation of Fentanyl and Xylazine

Fentanyl’s infiltration of vaping devices is detailed in a report by AddictionResource.net . This developing trend is easily fostered by the overwhelming belief by teens that vaping is safe. There will be little or no hesitation to take a puff from a friend’s vape – just to try it once.

Pair this trend with the decades-long track record for the misuse of prescription pills by teens. As you are reading this, if your prescription medications are in the ‘medicine cabinet’ the opening of that door can be an invitation. 14% of high school seniors admit to using prescriptions not meant for them. In some cases, teen Rx pill misuse was sparked by a pain medication prescribed for a sports injury. Addiction occurs in as little as three weeks. When the prescription runs out. the teen may seek out the same pill on the street – or is it the same pill?

Vaping introduced a sleek new drug delivery system

Vaping has changed everything when it comes to drug use among teenagers. The accessibility and discreet nature of vape devices have made it possible for any drug to be consumed in this way. Now vapes or e-cigarettes are even designed to look like school supplies, making detection impossible. Add to that, the fact that marijuana has no odor when vaped and you can see why it is an uphill battle for schools to contain the use of vapes. Schools are left to contact emergency services when teens lose consciousness in school because of something they vaped.

Adding to the dilemma is Snap Chat, a social media platform that feels drug dealers need their own identity emoji. When you child sees someone on Snap Chat, paired with the image of an electrical plug, they know that person sells or uses drugs. Delivery can easily be arranged to your front door. There’s a whole emoji language when it comes to drugs according to a NY Post article.


A change in the deadly drug trade always trickles down

A change in street drugs will almost always move down the chain to taint gateway drugs now. Behaviors like vaping marijuana are riskier than they were just a few years ago. Underage use of vaping devices or e-cigarettes is illegal, but you would never know it by the high school principal’s desk drawer that’s filled with confiscated vapes. Some of these devices are sold in smoke shops and on the internet. Others are sold on the street. Legally, smoke shops can sell e-cigarettes or vape devices that contain nicotine, so long as they do not sell to minors.

When a high school student in York, PA needed two doses of Narcan to be revived, it was from vaping fentanyl. Schools are not required to have Narcan ready to administer, so this young man was very lucky indeed. Clearly vaping has progressed from bubble gum flavors with as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes to evolve to be the delivery system for any combination of drugs.

Where we are at with Fentanyl and Xylazine

Fake pills containing fentanyl make up 60% of the illegal street drug supply. In Philadelphia, the explosion of Xylazine since 2021 has resulted in Xylazine’s presence detected in 90% of the street drugs seized.

It is this illegal trade that has effectively doubled (up 94%)the overdose death rate for youth aged 14-18. The correct term is actually ‘drug poisoning’ – since the youth were not seeking any ‘dose’ of fentanyl and had no intent of using fentanyl.

In addition, movies and public opinion have taken gateway drugs in stride and often with a sense of ‘Cheech and Chong’ humor. Teens experimenting with marijuana or alcohol are less likely to decline the pill offered at a campfire or say no to a friend offering to share their vape in school.

Prevention not keeping pace with trends

If illegal drugs are advancing at a prolific pace, from being unheard of to being in 90% of street drugs seized, then prevention shouldn’t be keeping pace. If precedence remains true, government action will only kick in at the extreme crisis level.

So that while the window for providing the prevention knowledge that vaping is emerging as a drug delivery system is NOW, you should not expect intervention on a national scale any time soon.

Historically, the focus on any trending drug calls for a prevention program for that substance. For example, we need a tobacco program, one for alcohol, another for Rx meds, one for marijuana etc., as if we wanted to make a patchwork quilt without a plan to ever sew the squares together.

Beyond that obstacle lies the evidence-based factor requiring $50,000 – $100,000 in research before a program can have that reverenced stamp of approval. The research can take from 5-15 years . By the time a program is deemed evidence-based, the drug of concern has been replaced over a dozen times or more.

Statistics show we are missing the mark for prevention

In 2020, statistics revealed that deaths from drug poisoning among 14–18-year-olds increased a stunning 94%! The CDC determined that fentanyl was responsible for 84% of those deaths. Non-profits are emerging to fill gaps. A Song for Charlie is the website and resource for fentanyl that far exceeds anything coming from the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

While it remains true that most teens don’t experiment with drugs, those that represent a considerable segment of the teen population now at incredible risk. The National Institute on Durg Abuse published the Monitoring the Future survey showing that in 2021 nearly 20% of teen in 8th, 10 and 12th grades used illicit drugs in 2021.

The CDC points out five factors relating to the deaths of youth aged 10-19 that should be driving prevention:

  1. Overdose/poisoning deaths among adolescents ( persons aged 10-19 years) are increasing substantially
  2. Most of the deaths involved illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF)
  3. 25% of deaths included evidence of counterfeit pills
  4. In 66% of adolescent deaths, a bystander was present but most provided no overdose response
  5. Approximately 41% had a history of mental health conditions or treatment

Knowing what is needed, we could do better.

The conclusion made was that promoting the dangers of fentanyl to our youth and the public at large would have the most impact. In addition, aiming to recognize and treat underlying mental health and substance use disorders would likely help reduce deaths in this age group.

While the opioid epidemic has been raging for decades, federal and state governments have not made progress in implementing a prevention plan for the public.

In fact, a case for prevention obstruction on the part of SAMHSA could even be made. In 2018, without notice, SAMHSA’s website deleted their online resource for prevention programs. After years of SAMHSA instructing prevention providers to use this ‘shopping list’ to select a program to meets a community’s need, that vital list is suddenly gone. No replacement has been offered and not direction has been given as to where prevention providers should go to find programs.

Prior to that, the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2011 abruptly halted facilitating their online service that connected prevention providers across the country. This service allowed providers to share information about emerging drug trends as well as best practices in prevention. Daily, hundreds of professionals would share information and pose questions. Imagine the alert that could have gone out ahead of the fentanyl crisis if the plug hadn’t been pulled on this service.

Nonprofits are taking the lead in prevention

Preventing drug use has never been more challenging. In this era, the battle is against something you cannot see packaged inside something you trust – a pill or a vape Parents have a primary role in prevention, but they need help to prepare for that role. Parents need voices louder than their own to bring credence to the prevention message. Nonprofits are taking the lead to help.

The website SongforCharlie.org is the leading resource for information and even prevention curriculum for fentanyl. Their profession videos are available from the website to show in the classroom and at home when seated with your teen.

The Pennsylvania nonprofit Community Action Network for Drug-free Lifestyle Empowerment, Inc. (CANDLE, Inc) has a model for prevention called Reality Tour that any community can replicate. It is unique in that the program is for youth and their caregivers to experience together. The developer of the program states that prevention needs to be always coming up on the community calendar. The parent/child Reality Tour drug prevention program is continually updated to address the latest trends. Just one caring person is needed to introduce the Reality Tour concept that has served 50,000 in the United States. If you got to the end of this blog, you just might be that caring person and want to take a look at community prevention planner to get started.

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Norma Norris

Norma Norris is the Executive Director of the nonprofit CANDLE, Inc.. EIN 71-0962470. Mrs. Norris has been a civic leader all her adult life. She and her husband Charles raised their three sons in Butler, PA. In an effort to preserve the integrity of her community, when heroin first appeared in early 2000, Norma created the parent/child drug prevention program called Reality Tour that is now replicated in the U.S. Her talents have progressed as well as her influence in the prevention field.