GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Called the “zombie drug,” a sedative that causes skin ulcers and severe open wounds has been found in the illicit drug supply in West Michigan.
Dealers mix xylazine, also called tranq, into drugs like fentanyl and other opioids to stretch the supply and amplify the high. It’s already wreaking havoc in major U.S. cities. Philadelphia, which has been hit particularly hard, has rolled out wound treatment vans to treat the necrotic skin ulcers it causes.
“We are now seeing that xylazine has contaminated a lot of the illicit fentanyl supply really across a lot of the country and it is now starting to become part of the contaminated drug supply here in Michigan,” Dr. Colleen Lane, Corewell Health’s chief of addiction medicine, said.
She said her clinic in Grand Rapids gained the ability to test patients for xylazine just this month but is already finding it.
“Just in our clinic alone, we’ve had four or five patients in the last few weeks,” Lane said. “So what that tells us is it is prominent in our community already.”
Xylazine’s proper use is to sedate horses and other large animals. In humans, the caustic drug irritates the blood vessels surrounding an injection site. It also seems to prevent bodies from healing. Lane said her patients, who don’t even realize their drug was laced with tranq, are coming in with open wounds.
“These wounds start off as small ulcers or small sores and they grow over time and they sometimes look like burns, and then, because they’re open, it leads to secondary infections,” she explained.
She said tranq has been present in fatal overdoses in metro Grand Rapids, though always in combination with another deadly drug like fentanyl. Other xylazine-involved deaths happened in Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Muskegon counties in 2022. Last year’s data is still coming in, so the numbers have not been finalized.
Lane said raising awareness is critical, saying part of the reason tranq is so dangerous is that people using drugs don’t know it’s there.
“This is not something someone is choosing to use. It’s something that someone is unknowingly being exposed to,” Lane said. “It’s unfortunately something that’s going to continue to be pervasive and something we all need to be aware of.”
Tranq is not an opioid, so overdose reversal drug delivery system Narcan doesn’t work against it. But Lane said Narcan is still an important tool because tranq is lacing opioids, which Narcan is effective against. She added that it is critical people using illicit opioids implement good hygiene, pay close attention to their skin and seek medical care for sores right away.
People struggling with drug use can reach out to The Red Project in Grand Rapids, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1.800.662.HELP (4357) or find treatment on SAMHSA’s website.
Lane’s clinic, the Addiction Clinic at The Center for Integrative Medicine on Sheldon Boulevard SE near Oakes Street in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood, has walk-in hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.