Mass Overdoses Linked to Deadly New Drug in the Supply

Dangerous animal tranquilizer medetomidine showing up in street drugs in numerous states
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2024 8:07 AM CDT
Mass Overdoses Traced to Drug Far Stronger Than 'Tranq'
Registered nurse Kathy Lalli treats Dominic Rodriguez skin injury at the Kensington Hospital wound care outreach van, parked in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Tuesday, May 23, 2023.   (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A dangerous chemical sedative is being added to fentanyl and other street drugs, triggering mass overdose events in cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. "The numbers reported out of Philadelphia were 160 hospitalizations over a three- or four-day period," the director of NPS Discovery, a group that studies illicit drugs, tells NPR. Medetomidine—a powerful anesthetic used by veterinarians, with an altered form called dexmedetomidine also used in human medicine—was found in street drug samples as early as 2022. But experts say it is now spreading rapidly. It not only causes what NPR describes as "gruesome skin wounds," it slows the human heart to dangerous levels, as low as 20 beats per minute.

City officials began noticing a spike in overdoses in late April. Overdoses have only accelerated this month, prompting public health advisories in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Medetomidine has been reported "in at least nine states across the US and Canada," per NewsNation. The Biden administration previously warned about an increase in overdoses triggered by the mixing of fentanyl and another animal tranquilizer called xylazine, or "tranq." The efforts might even have encouraged drug cartels to experiment with medetomidine, which is 100 times more potent than xylazine, NewsNation reports. It's long-term effects aren't fully understood. Like xylazine, medetomidine doesn't respond to naloxone, which is used to reverse most fentanyl overdoses, further complicating the medical response.

"It's critical to alert street users," Dr. Bertha Madras, a drug researcher at Harvard Medical School, tells NPR. "They're playing Russian roulette now with the drug supply." Without no specific antidote for alpha agonists like medetomidine, addiction medicine specialist Dr. James Besante says "rescue breathing" should be used in addition to naloxone in case of overdose, per NewsNation. "The most important thing is that you call 911," he adds. (More drug overdose stories.)

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