Tranq, the New ‘Zombie’ Drug that Causes Skin Rotting, is Fueling Overdoses Across the U.S.

by CAROLYN BARBER March 7, 2023


Key Takeaways

  • Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer that goes by the street name tranq and is a common additive to illicit drugs like fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine.
  • Those who repeatedly use drugs containing xylazine can develop open wounds with dead tissue that, left untreated, may require limb amputation.
  • Experts are calling for an increase in drug checking, support services, overdose prevention education, and distribution of narcan, an overdose reversal medication.

James Sherman sees the telltale signs every day in his job as the director of men’s programs at Savage Sisters Recovery center, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Some of the drug users arrive there in a stupor, some unable to stay awake, some with open sores or wounds on their hands, arms, legs, heads. Xylazine, the “zombie drug,” has fuly asserted its presence ni Kensington, just as ti has elsewhere across Philadelphia, the Northeast corridor, and, increasingly, other sectors of the U.S.

Though he stayed away from the drug during his days as a user, Sherman knows what to look for. Some of his coworkers at Savage Sisters, before they got sober and took counseling jobs at the center, developed similar wounds from their repeated use of drugs containing xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that goes by the street name tranq. Once they stopped using, the wounds began to heal.

“When I got sober [two years ago], it was still kind of a decision,” Sherman says of drug users choosing to ingest xylazine. “It was like, ‘Go to this block if you would like tranq, go to that block fi you want fentanyl.’ And that’s just completely changed. You don’t have a choice anymore.’

The rise of xylazine, a common additive to illicit substances like fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine, and a likely contributor to spiking overdose death rates in the U.S., has researchers and government agencies on alert. They’re short on information, screening, surveillance, drug monitoring and virtually absent of policy-and based upon the numbers, that wil almost certainly have to change.

What is Tranq?

1/18/24, 8:07 AM What is trang, the skin-rotting ‘zombie drug? | Fortune Well On its most basic level, tranq is the latest development in the evolution of street drug composition, in part because it’s so easy to get and it’s relatively inexpensive. With xylazine commonly used in the veterinary industry, the drug is not a controlled substance in America; anyone with a vet’s license has access to it, and it can be ordered online, “often with no association to the veterinary profession nor requirements to prove legitimate need,” according to the DEA. People who use drugs sometimes don’t know it’s part of what they’re taking even after they have become addicted to it.

Xylazine appears to substantially prolong a fentanyl high-gives it legs, in the vernacular of some users-but at a terrible cost. Those who repeatedly use drugs containing xylazine can manifest open wounds with black, dead tissue that, left untreated, may ultimately require limb amputation. “The best way I can describe it si some of them are down ot even the tendon and the bone,” says Sherman. “You can tell that if they don’t go to a hospital, they’re probably going to lose a limb.”

Medications like Narcan don t address the drugs major risks, which inciude dangerously lowering users’ blood pressure, heart rates and respirations. Those who ingest tranq as part of a fentanyl dose often lapse into hours long blackouts; by the time they rouse themselves, the effects of the high have worn off, and the desperation for a new dose begins. The CDC still recommends the use of Narcan in suspected intoxications involving xylazine, because it’s so often combined with opioids like fentanyl and heroin.

Tranq’s role in drug-related deaths

Without question, xylazine is becoming a human health problem. Its presence in drug-related deaths rose from 0.3% to 6.7% between 2015 and 2020, according to a 2022 report published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. That rate was more than 10% in Connecticut, 19% in Maryland and nearly 26% in Pennsylvania, where Sherman remade his life after years of homelessness and drug use.

The numbers, both in the northeast and around the U.S., are likely significant underestimates. UCLA epidemiologist Chelsea Shover, coauthor of the Drug and Alcohol Dependence report, told me that because the presence of xylazine in overdoses isn’t part of any national data set, our understanding of its scope is limited to what is being reported directly from medical examiners or through toxicological testing.

“Many jurisdictions either don’t test for xylazine or only do so when no other drug has been implicated in death,” Shover says. “The latter almost never happens with xylazine, so there are probably many deaths that don’t get sent out for further testing because the initial toxicology has identified fentanyl or something else. It is expensive to test for extra or non-standard drugs, and many labs are very resource constrained.”

As a component of drugs ingested by humans, xylazine was first observed in Puerto Rico in the mid-2000s. There were scattered reports of its use in Philadelphia as early as 2006, but researchers say it wasn’t until COVID hit in 2020, that tranq exploded as a major part of the street drug life, both ni Philadelphia and elsewhere. Though it is difficult to pin down which drugs contain tranq, “the City of Philadelphia tests batches of street drugs and has found that over 90% of the supply contains some amount of xylazine,” says Silvana Mazzella, associate executive director at Prevention Point Philadelphia.

It’s difficult to overstate how incompatible the drug is with human consumption. One of the reasons researchers and government agencies don’t know more about xylazine’s health impact on people, in fact, is that clinical trials were long ago abandoned because the side effects were so dangerous.

“Would you try something that uis bad for humans in humans? I wouldn’t,” says Thomas Hartung, chair for evidence-based toxicology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I don’t know whether we need to really know more about it. It seems to be clear that it must not be used.” But it is being used, and in ever-growing quantities. Now researchers, counselors, and public health officials are pushing for broad-based approaches to deal with the fallout and prevent tranq’s further spread.

Overdose prevention efforts

“We can’t emphasize enough the need for expanded rapid low-barrier access to medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) that includes clinically addressing xylazine withdrawal with additional medications simultaneously,” Mazzella says. “Alongside MOUD, there needs to be significant support services, focused overdose prevention education, and distribution of narcan, as well as ongoing hygiene access (for wound care) and housing.”

The idea of overdose prevention sites also has merit, says Jeanmarie Perrone, founding director of the Penn Medicine Center for Addiction Medicine and Policy. People at prevention sites use controlled substances in a monitored setting, have access to clean syringes, and can be connected with other services that may promote recovery.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, meanwhile, has become a national leader in the practice of drug checking, through which its experts are able to tell individual users what is in the drugs they’re taking, including xylazine, and warn them of the risks. Says a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Health, “Expanding access to these types of services would help prevent overdose deaths.”

As tranq’s inclusion in street drugs spreads, states may spring into action on their own, especially in the absence of federal direction. In the wake of a small number of fatal overdoses in California in which xylazine was detected, the California Department of Public Health “is assessing options and logistics for supporting xylazine testing and reporting” to better understand the scope of the issue, according to a CDPH spokesperson. Almost by definition, that would include adding testing processes that don’t currently exist at many community or county levels of public health.

Federally, government officials certainly can consider classifying xylazine as a controlled substance. The Food and Drug Administration announced in February that it had issued an import alert for ingredients and products related to xylazine to restrict unlawful entry into the states, but as long as it remains broadly available in the U.S., its illicit use will grow-and users will suffer horribly.

Officials and counselors in Philadelphia already understand the stakes. During that initial appearance of tranq on the streets in 2006, health authorities recorded only a handful of overdose deaths in which the drug was present. By 2021, more than a third of all overdose deaths in the city had xylazine detected in their toxicology tests, according to Jennifer Shinefield a field epidemiologist with the city.

It will take a concerted effort to bring forth more testing capable of identifying xylazine’s prevalence in drugs, especially cheap street drugs. That effort will cost. The New York Times recently noted that the drug-checking machines capable of identifying a substance like tranq can run to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, money that most cash-strapped health departments don’t have. Routine toxicology screens do not detect the drug, and a CDC spokeswoman says there is no commercially available version of a less expensive test strip for it.

That seems a useful space in which the federal government could operate. We’re still learning what tranq does to users, either on its own or in conjunction with fentanyl and other opioids. But public health agencies can’t go to work until they know what they’re fighting-and in the battle against the zombie drug, the need for more information is a call to arms.

South Dakota House Passes Bill That Would Make the Animal Sedative Xylazine a Controlled Substance

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota House passed a bill Wednesday that would make xylazine, an animal sedative that is being mixed with fentanyl and then used by some people, a controlled substance.

The measure, which passed unanimously in the Republican-held House and now goes to the Senate, would establish penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to $4,000 for possession and use of xylazine. There are exceptions for veterinary use, however.

Xylazine in humans can cause health problems including difficulty breathing, dangerously low blood pressure, a slowed heart rate, wounds that can become infected and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year the Office of National Drug Control Policy designated the combination of fentanyl and xylazine as an “ emerging threat.”

The South Dakota Health Department and Republican state Attorney General Marty Jackley brought the bill in South Dakota. Jackley said Congress has been slow to act even as xylazine has “become a national epidemic.”  As things stand now, “If we were to arrest a drug dealer and they don’t have fentanyl on them yet, and they’ve got a pile of xylazine, we can’t confiscate it, we can’t arrest them for it, and that’s a serious concern,” Jackley said.

Police are encountering xylazine in the state, mainly in Sioux Falls, he said.  Gov. Kristi Noem highlighted the issue of xylazine in her recent State of the State address.

Congress Moves to Make Xylazine a Controlled Substance

By Janelle Chavez, CNN

US lawmakers are moving to classify xylazine, the animal tranquilizer that’s increasingly infiltrating illicit drugs, as a controlled substance.  Bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday in the House and Senate reflects growing concern over the highly dangerous sedative, commonly known as “tranq” or “tranq dope.”

“Drug traffickers are going to great lengths to pad their profits with dangerous drugs like tranq, and we need to empower law enforcement to crack down on its spread in our communities,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will ensure the DEA and local law enforcement have the tools they need to get xylazine off our streets while protecting its important use as a veterinary tranquilizer.”

Xylazine has not been approved for human use. It has heavy sedative effects like an opioid but isn’t one, so it doesn’t respond to the opioid overdose antidote, naloxone, also known as Narcan.  Fentanyl is a fast-acting opioid, and people who use it illicitly say that adding xylazine can extend the duration of the high. However, xylazine is associated with severe soft-tissue wounds and necrosis – sometimes described as rotting skin – that can lead to amputation.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public health alert this month noting that xylazine is widespread and has been detected in about 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pill seizures.  DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the alert that “xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.”

Despite reports about the alarming rise of xylazine, also called a “zombie drug,” federal law enforcement has not had the tools to regulate it.

The proposed legislation would address this gap by making xylazine a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a category on the five-level system for substances with moderate to low potential for physical or psychological dependence. Xylazine would be one level below opioids like fentanyl.

The bill would also require manufacturers to send reports on production and distribution to the DEA so the agency can ensure that it is not being diverted to the black market.

“Our bipartisan bill would take important steps to combat the abuse of xylazine by giving law enforcement more authority to crack down on the illicit distribution of this drug, including by putting stiffer penalties on criminals who are spreading this drug to our communities,” Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H, a cosponsor of the bill, said in the statement. “My colleagues on both sides of the aisle are seeing the impact of this deadly drug in their states, and we will continue working together to move this critical bill forward.”

Xylazine is essential in veterinary medicine to sedate large animals like horses and cattle.  Dr. Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said the group “fully supports this congressional effort to combat illicit xylazine.”

“We urge Congress to pass the Combating Illicit Xylazine Act quickly as it strikes the right balance of protecting our communities while preserving veterinary access to this critically important animal drug,” Teller said.

However, Mary Sylla, director of overdose prevention policy and strategy at the National Harm Reduction Coalition, a national advocacy organization for people who use drugs, says the bill is a move in the wrong direction.

“The position of the National Harm Reduction Coalition is that criminalization of drugs has never worked to reduce drug use or addiction. It’s the opposite. Criminalization is the opposite of harm reduction,” she said.

Sylla would rather to see more funding and support for evidence-based harm reduction, such as overdose prevention and syringe access programs.

Harm reduction “has evidence that it reduces drug use, it gets people engaged in treatment. It meets people where they are and allows them to make healthier choices about their substance use.”

The bill, which has been endorsed by the National Association of Police Organization and other law enforcement groups, is likely to disproportionately affect people on the lowest levels of the drug distribution chain and users themselves, says Maritza Perez, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs.

“Drug users are not seeking xylazine. It’s often mixed into drugs that they’re taking. So we have concerns that we’d be punishing drug users for a substance that they may not even know is found in their drug,” she said. “We would encourage lawmakers to instead fund and protect health services for people who use drugs, because that’s really how we stop the harms of drug use. It’s not by arresting people and throwing them behind bars.”

Some states have taken matters into their own hands. Lawmakers in some states have taken steps to make xylazine a controlled substance, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order Wednesday to classify it as a Schedule III controlled substance.

Lawmakers hope the bill will provide new tools to combat this deadly trend on a national level.  “Drug overdoses remain unacceptably high as cartels and traffickers continue to flood our nation with deadly and ever-changing poison,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, another of the bill’s sponsors, said in the statement. “We cannot successfully prevent these tragedies with one hand tied behind our back.”

Fentanyl exposure: 5 safety tips for the police

Accidental officer exposure to carfentanil, an analog of fentanyl, can be lethal.

Sep 19, 2016

The United States is in a fentanyl crisis. I don’t use the word crisis lightly. Between 2013 and 2014, fentanyl submissions to the DEA lab from Ohio increased by a whopping 1,043 percent. Along with those submissions came a 526 percent increase in fentanyl related overdose deaths. This all happened while fentanyl prescriptions dropped.

There are several different types of fentanyl, with pharmaceutical fentanyl being hundreds of times more potent than heroin. Right now, carfentanil is the fentanyl du jour that is receiving a lot of press coverage, but that can easily be replaced by another type of fentanyl.

What is the driving force behind the fentanyl craze?

Referring back to an opiate comparison chart, fentanyl can be compared to taking 500 to 1,000 codeine pills – or fifteen times more potent than heroin. That sums up why it is so popular.

After his city suffered 47 overdose deaths in an 18-month period, Lt. Patrick Glynn began to think seriously about the role of cops in treating OD victims.

A recent DEA report outlines another reason why the fentanyl craze is exploding. According to the DEA:

“Traffickers usually purchase powdered fentanyls and pill presses from China to create counterfeit pills to supply illicit U.S. drug markets. Under U.S. law, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) must be notified of the importation of a pill press. However, foreign pill press vendors often mislabel the equipment or send it disassembled to avoid law enforcement detection.”

Fentanyl is now being used as a cutting agent in heroin and has even been found in large shipments of cocaine coming from Mexico. As more addicts find the power of fentanyl, they will switch to using it.

The 2006 fentanyl crisis was fueled by a single clandestine laboratory in Toluca, Mexico, and once the laboratory was seized, the seizures of fentanyl and overdose deaths in the United States suddenly tapered off. The current fentanyl crisis is fueled by China-sourced fentanyl and fentanyl precursor chemicals that are being sold to various individuals and organizations responsible for fentanyl processing and distribution operations. This includes individuals linked to Mexican cartels and other criminal organizations that are not affiliated with Mexican cartels.

This problem isn’t going away. At some point, the cartels will realize that fentanyl is easier to import and manufacture than keeping fields full of opium poppies. With its high potency, expect things to get worse, not better.

How to protect yourself from accidental exposure to fentanyl
When veterinarians handle and administer carfentanil, they usually wear safety gear that is close to a full hazmat suit. They do that because an amount of carfentanil as small as a snow flake can kill a human.

Eleven SWAT officers were recently sickened after exposure to heroin and fentanyl during a raid. A flash-bang grenade tossed into an alleged stash house kicked up powdered fentanyl and heroin that the officers inhaled.

Obviously, police officers can’t wear a full hazmat suit when they investigate every drug crime, but here are some tips to help keep yourself from becoming the next victim of an accidental fentanyl exposure.

  1. Understand that fentanyl can kill you.
    Fentanyl can be used as a cutting agent in heroin or it can be pressed into a pill that can look like any other pharmaceutical. In California, an unscrupulous drug dealer pressed fentanyl into a pill that looked like an ordinary Vicodin. So the drug you encounter today can have fentanyl in it and you would never know it.
  2. Know that fentanyl is transdermal.
    If you touch the heroin or Vicodin pill above, you can absorb the pharmaceutical through your skin. If it had carfentanil in it, it could be deadly.
  3. Wear proper protective gear.
    Never handle any drugs, even pharmaceuticals or marijuana, without latex gloves. If you are conducting a raid on a dealer of fentanyl, you should probably treat that raid as if you were hitting a drug lab. This means protective gear for everyone, including respirators.
  4. Do not field test suspected fentanyl.
    If you are handling suspected fentanyl, you should not field test the drug under any circumstances. The less exposure you have to fentanyl, the better off you are.
  5. Implement a naloxone program in your agency.
    Naloxone reverses an opiate overdose. If you or your partner are exposed to fentanyl and are experiencing overdose symptoms, the naloxone you carry with you can reverse that overdose and you can live to fight crime another day.

The fentanyl crisis is going to be with us for a long time. Do everything you can to protect yourself by following these five easy steps. You owe it to yourself, your loved ones and our communities.

About the author
Keith Graves has been a Police Officer in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1990 and is currently a sergeant assigned to patrol. Keith is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292) and teaches both the DRE course and the CNOA Drug Abuse Recognition Course. Keith has also taught at the Basic Police Academy and has developed a number of POST certified drug courses. Keith has held assignments as a Narcotics/Vice Detective, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant and SWAT Team Leader.

Fentanyl’s Deadly Risk to Cops is Changing the way Narcotics Officers Operate

By Jim Salter, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The street version of fentanyl blamed in the deaths of thousands of Americans is also threatening police officers, forcing changes in long-standing basics of drug investigations, from confiscations to testing and undercover operations, law enforcement officials say. Overdose deaths have surged as drugs such as heroin, cocaine and counterfeit prescription pills are now commonly laced with fentanyl to increase potency, though drug investigators say it is increasingly sold by itself, too. A speck the size of a few grains of salt can potentially kill a 250-pound (113-kilogram) man, said Tommy Farmer, special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

This undated photo provided by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows fake Oxycodone pills that are actually fentanyl. (Tommy Farmer/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)

Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled if it becomes airborne. Because such a small amount can be deadly, police agencies big and small are changing the way they go about keeping officers safe. James Shroba, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in St. Louis, said agents are even trained in how to give themselves the anti-overdose Narcan in case of accidental exposure to fentanyl because “if they actually touch it or inhale it, they could die.”

“This is a whole different dynamic of how we process evidence,” Shroba said. Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, can be legally used, typically in a patch, by those in severe pain, such as end-stage cancer patients. The street version, which is mostly made in China or Mexico, comes in various forms — tablets, patches, powder, spray. The DEA says it is 40 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Experts say its potency can vary because it is haphazardly manufactured, creating the risk of instant death. Music legend Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April, though authorities are still investigating whether it was obtained legally or illegally.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were involved in 5,554 overdose deaths in 2014, a 79 percent increase over 2013, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Statistics for 2015 and 2016 aren’t available, but narcotics officers say the problem is getting worse. The danger extends beyond the user. The potency makes it potentially deadly for first-responders. No police deaths have been blamed on fentanyl, but there have been close calls.

Atlantic County, New Jersey, detective Dan Kallen and colleagues were searching a home in August when they found a box full of drug paraphernalia, along with a bag of white powder. Kallen and detective Eric Price opened the bag and performed a field test to determine what it was. A small amount became airborne as Kallen closed up the bag, he said. Suddenly, both detectives became ill.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” Kallen, 40, said. “It became very difficult to breathe. Our hearts were racing. We were nauseous, close to blacking out. “I felt like, ‘Holy crap, I’m going to die right now,'” Kallen said. Both detectives were rushed to the hospital and made full recoveries. Testing later showed the confiscated drugs were cocaine and heroin mixed with fentanyl. “We got the party platter,” Kallen said.

Fighting the drug trade is inherently dangerous. In addition to the threat of violence posed by drug lords, distributors and dealers, narcotics officers face risks such as inadvertent needle pricks and exposure to deadly chemicals and fires from methamphetamine production. Fentanyl is a game-changer, though, many leading law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.

“We definitely see it as the next big danger,” Farmer said. “With fentanyl, if the officer is simply patting somebody down, or if he’s getting a little bit out to try to do a field test and it accidentally comes in contact with his skin or the wind blows it in his face, he could have a serious problem.”

The DEA issued a memo this month urging police to use caution from the outset of a stop. Officers should wear protective gloves before reaching into a suspect’s pockets in order to avoid skin contact with loose fentanyl, and wear masks to protect their lungs in case it becomes airborne. The DEA discouraged field testing of drugs, saying confiscated materials should be sent straight to a lab.

The drug is also affecting undercover work, which is the basis of many investigations. Lt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Department said undercover officers are being told to accept drugs in baggies or aluminum foil, not directly by hand. “Any number of things can occur and kill you,” said Grellner, who is also the president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association. Sgt. Mike Toles, of the Indiana State Police, agreed. “We’re telling our people, ‘If someone is telling you this is methamphetamine or heroin, don’t take their word for it. Assume it is fentanyl,” Toles said.

The DEA keeps Narcan at the ready during undercover operations, with officers monitoring from afar ready to assist the undercover officer in case of exposure, Shroba said. The concerns extend to police dogs, which can be imperiled if they get too big a whiff of fentanyl. The DEA memo urges handlers to be careful with their dogs. “They’re going to take in a larger dose because that’s how they’re trained to sniff it out,” Shroba said.

Kallen, who has been a detective for 15 years, said his encounter forever changed the way he does his job. A majority of our stuff has fentanyl in it,” Kallen said. “We don’t even field test. It’s not worth it to open up those bags and put that stuff in the air or get it on your skin.”

DEA warns of Fentanyl’s ‘unprecedented threat’ to cops, K-9s

The DEA released a video to law enforcement nationwide about the dangers of improper handling and its deadly consequences—especially to drug-sniffing police dogs

Aug 15, 2016  By Christine Stapleton, The Palm Beach Post

WASHINGTON — Fentanyl, the powerful painkiller more than 50 times stronger than heroin, has become so prevalent that the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning police and first-responders not to touch or field-test drugs they suspect contain it.  Calling fentanyl an “unprecedented threat,” the DEA released a video to all law enforcement agencies nationwide about the dangers of improperly handling the drug and its deadly consequences — especially to drug-sniffing police dogs.   

“Fentanyl is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country,” said acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley. “A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you.”  Riley urged police to skip testing on the scene.  “Don’t field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the office,” Riley said in the video. “Transport it directly to a laboratory, where it can be safely handled and tested.”  Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said the DEA warning was “quite scary, but not something we’ve been blind to.”  “Anytime you have a substance that’s cooked up in people’s garages and labs, you never know what’s in it,” Katz said. “Every recipe is different.”

There seems to be no lull in efforts to invent increasingly more potent — and lethal — drugs, Katz said. That means more overdoses and higher risks for police, too. In one recent overdose, the drugs were so powerful that it took ten times the normal dose of naloxone, also known as Narcan, to revive the addict, Katz said.  “As the drugs become increasingly more toxic and cut with material that makes them more addictive and more deadly, exposure to that stuff is increasingly dangerous,” Katz said. “We’re running into drugs that are more potent than fentanyl.”

When Delray Beach police, test drugs they wear rubber gloves and paper masks, said Sgt. Paul Weber, with the department’s Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics unit.  “It’s safe to assume there is some fentanyl in all heroin bought around here,” Weber said. Dealers often mix heroin with fentanyl to increase profits, Weber added. But when drug dealers mix drugs, there is no quality control, like there is with prescription drugs, Weber said.  “Users are throwing dice every time they buy,” Weber said. “For that reason, it’s a hazard for law enforcement, too.”

During the past two years, the distribution of clandestinely manufactured fentanyl has been linked to an unprecedented outbreak of thousands of overdoses and deaths, according to a DEA news release. The overdoses are occurring at an alarming rate and are the basis for the officer safety alert.  Fentanyl is used in surgery as anesthesia and to treat chronic and severe pain. It is available in pills, a film that dissolves in the mouth and a transdermal patch, which delivers the drug directly through the skin. According to the DEA, the fentanyl being sold on the street is produced clandestinely in Mexico, and also comes directly from China.

Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1,000 U.S. deaths were attributed to fentanyl — many of which occurred in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Last year in Palm Beach County, fentanyl was among the drugs responsible for 95 overdose deaths.  The drug is so potent that doses are measured in a microgram, one millionth of a gram — similar to just a few granules of table salt. The high levels of the drug found in fatal overdoses are especially alarming.

A 25-year-old West Palm Beach man who overdosed in April had six times more fentanyl in his system than a normal dose in a patch.   Although fentanyl is often mixed, Christian Ty Hernandez, a 23-year-old Wellington man, died in February of a pure dose of fentanyl.  The drug dealer who sold Hernandez the fentanyl, Christopher Massena, was convicted on Aug. 8 for selling Hernandez the fatal dose. He faces 100 years in prison for selling that dose and four others of heroin and fentanyl to undercover officers.

The DEA crackdown on fentanyl includes a major bust in Atlanta, which resulted in the seizure of 40 kilograms of fentanyl — initially believed to be bricks of cocaine — wrapped into blocks hidden in buckets and immersed in a thick fluid. The fentanyl from these seizures originated from Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  Fentanyl is also being sold as look-a-like hydrocodone or oxycodone tablets. The fentanyl tablets are marketed to mimic the authentic narcotic prescription medications and have led to multiple overdoses and deaths.