Shapiro administration moves to schedule sedative for animals found in illicit drugs
Scheduling a drug requires that manufacturers and distributors verify that a practitioner, such as a veterinarian, is licensed and authorized to receive a controlled substance
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Philadelphia. (Commonwealth Media Services)
The Shapiro administration is working to make a sedative approved for veterinary use on large animals increasingly found in the illicit drug supply harder to access, hoping to combat the opioid epidemic.
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday — speaking at a press conference in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, which he described as the “center of the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania” — announced that his administration submitted a notice of intent to temporarily add xylazine, commonly known as tranq, to the list of Schedule III drugs under the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act.
The administration also plans to submit a notice of intent to schedule nitazines — synthetic opioids never approved for use in the United States — as a Schedule I drug.
The notices will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on Saturday, and the Office of Attorney General has 30 days to comment on them.
Scheduling a drug requires that manufacturers and distributors verify that a practitioner, such as a veterinarian, is licensed and authorized to receive a controlled substance. It also means additional regulations for the delivery and receipt of the substance and security steps to mitigate theft and diversion.
Shapiro noted that veterinarians in the commonwealth can still access xylazine for their work, but scheduling the sedative “will make it harder for these dangerous drugs to be used illegally and illicitly.”
“Xylazine is not only contributing to overdose deaths in Pennsylvania,” Kristen Rodack, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said. “Nationwide, there has been an increase in overdose deaths involving xylazine mixed with illicit drugs, particularly fentanyl.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration notes that veterinarians can legally purchase the sedative in liquid form, vials, or preloaded syringes through pharmaceutical companies or internet sites.
But xylazine is also available online to those without any association with the veterinary profession, often costing between $6-$20.
The low price, the U.S. DEA wrote in an October 2022 report, makes the sedative attractive to drug traffickers who want to reduce the amount of fentanyl or heroin used in a mixture and customers who want a longer high. Others might not even know the sedative is mixed with other opioids, and because xylazine is not an opioid, naloxone — which reverses overdoses — is ineffective.
Shapiro said that xylazine contributed to roughly 90 overdoses when he served as attorney general in 2017. Last year, that number jumped to more than 620 overdose deaths — a nearly 700% increase.
“But consider this further, xylazine also went from being detected in only one county in the commonwealth back in 2017, right here in Philadelphia, to being found in at least 37 counties in 2021,” he said. “Why do I say at least? Because we know these numbers are underreported because not every county tracks the presence of xylazine in these drugs.”
Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs acting Secretary Dr. Latika Davis-Jones added that in many cases, xylazine causes severe wounds that can lead to sepsis and amputation.
“We continue to lose 15 Pennsylvanians a day to drug overdoses,” Davis-Jones said, noting that those individuals are people — not just statistics. “This is a public health crisis. Addressing fentanyl, xylazine, or any other emerging drug trend will require all hands on deck.”
Philadelphia Police Department First Deputy Commissioner John Stanford said officers have seen the consequences of xylazine — describing how the sedative can induce paralysis and make it nearly impossible for victims to seek help — and called the administration’s plans to temporarily schedule the drug as “taking a critical step in the fight against drug addiction.”
He added that the change could help law enforcement be more effective at tracking and regulating the distribution and use of xylazine, also enabling them to prosecute those responsible for its distribution.
Shapiro firmly stated that he opposes supervised injection sites, which provide an environment where people can consume illicit drugs and have access to care in the event of an overdose.
He said his administration is studying the potential outcomes of a possible settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Philadelphia advocates about a site in the city and what options Shapiro has as governor to take action.
“But suffice to say we’ll be prepared to take action should that become a reality,” Shapiro said, adding that he believes he has “some authority” to take action but prefers a legislative solution as “the most comprehensive.”
A group of Senate Democrats introduced legislation, Senate Bill 165, prohibiting supervised injection sites statewide.
Sens. Christine Tartaglione, Jimmy Dillon, and Sharif Street — all Philadelphia Democrats — also filed an amicus brief in the case between the U.S. Department of Justice and Safehouse, hoping to prevent the nonprofit from opening an injection site.
Anyone seeking treatment and recovery resources may call 800-662-4357 (HELP) or visit the Addiction Treatment Locator, Assessment, and Standards platform at treatmentatlas.org.
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