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Zombie drug causing overdoses and deaths in Washoe County

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The Drug Enforcement Administration is warning of "the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced." It involves a narcotic nicknamed zombie drug and people have overdosed and died from it in Washoe County.

The drug is xylazine. It's a drug veterinarian clinics use to sedate large animals like horses. The DEA says it is used on its own, but people are mixing it with fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and a variety of other drugs, making the cocktail even more dangerous.

"We believe it's being added at the street level distribution. They're adding it to make their product go further and it is a lower-cost cutting agent so their profits increase," said Aimee Koontz, the DEA Resident Agent in Charge. "A lot of people don't know that they're obtaining a drug that contains xylazine and that xylazine could increase the probability of their dying from an overdose,"

Xylazine is called "tranq" for it's tranquilizing effect in large animals. It's also known as zombie drug for causing flesh to rot at the injection site, which can lead to amputation.

Cases are spiking across the country. From 2020 to 2021, west coast cases jumped from 77 to 163 -- a 112% increase. The numbers are only known cases. It's likely there were many more but because the drug was so new on the streets, nobody knew to test for it.

In Washoe County in 2022, the DEA reports that 187 people overdosed on xylazine. Four people died from it. The numbers are expected to skyrocket.

Staff at Ridge House, a substance abuse treatment facility in Reno, says their clients have likely used xylazine.

"I think it kind of had to have been because the way they described the high," said Jessedillon Babb, the facilities director and maintenance coordinator. "I was terrified, it's scary."

Bristlecone Recovery Center in Reno recently had a confirmed case and the director suspects there are other cases.

"We've had suspected cases, we have to look at symptoms. When we see open wounds, when we see certain symptoms, we have to assume," said Peter Ott, the executive director.

Ott says labs have missed testing for xylazine because it's so new to the streets. He has concerns that his center is not a hospital and is not able to treat the open wounds that come with this drug.

Narcan, the nasal spray that can treat an opioid overdose-- doesn't work on the zombie drug.

"What we're finding is the rate of death is skyrocketing because they're Narcan'ed, everybody thinks their fine, they leave them alone, an hour later they go back into overdose. If no one's around, they will die." Ott said.

The DEA can't crack down on this drug. It's not a scheduled drug, meaning the DEA can't regulate it.

"The DEA wants to get the message out because at this point it's not a drug that we can regulate but a lot of people don't know that they're obtaining a drug that contains xylazine and that xylazine could increase the probability of their dying from an overdose," said Koontz.

The DEA is working to change the federal regulation on xylazine. In the meantime it will work to get the message out and warn others of this dangerous drug.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto just introduced bipartisan legislation to try and crack down and schedule xylazine. The Act would address the gap in federal law by: Classifying its illicit use under Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act;

  • Enabling the DEA to track its manufacturing to ensure it is not diverted to the illicit market;
  • Requiring a report on prevalence, risks, and recommendations to best regulate illicit use of xylazine;
  • Ensuring all salts and isomers of xylazine are covered when restricting its illicit use;
  • Declaring xylazine an emerging drug threat.
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