Bill criminalizing possession of xylazine will be presented to Pennsylvania's governor

By Hanna Webster
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In an effort to curb the presence of xylazine, the powerful animal tranquilizer that is increasingly showing up in Pennsylvania's street drug shipments, state lawmakers passed a law this week that criminalizes illegal possession.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved House Bill 1661, which classifies xylazine as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The House voted 172-29 to pass the bill this week; The Senate approved it on May 1 by a vote of 49-1.

Manuel Bonder, spokesman for Gov. Josh Shapiro's office, said Mr. Shapiro plans to sign the bill.

HB 1661 signals months of coordinated action by state lawmakers to restrict access to xylazine, a substance that has caused dangerous skin wounds and amputations.

The only opponent in the Senate was Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, who declined to comment. Several House members also did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Shapiro decided last April to temporarily classify xylazine as a Schedule III drug by regulation to restrict access.

While other states also consider the drug a factor in overdose deaths, Pennsylvania recorded the highest number of xylazine-related deaths in the country between 2019 and 2022, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Xylazine, a powerful sedative used by veterinarians, is not approved for use in humans. It now dominates Philadelphia's street drug supply, with 99% of fentanyl samples testing positive for xylazine, according to Sarah Laurel, executive director of Savage Sisters, a harm reduction group that spends much of its time on Philadelphia's Kensington Avenue, a street that is open -Eye drug use is common.

Wounds caused by xylazine sometimes require amputation; Experts believe the tissue suffers from a lack of oxygen and dies, temporarily exposing bone.

Xylazine is also dealing with Allegheny County with a growing number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths linked to the drug. Preliminary data from the Medical Examiner's Office found that nearly half of all fentanyl-related deaths investigated since May 2023 were related to the drug, compared with a rough estimate of about a quarter, according to local harm reduction advocates.

“I greatly appreciate the governor’s support since the inception of this bill,” said Pennsylvania House Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset, the bill’s lead sponsor. “It was great to work with him on this matter.”

In addition to his role as a legislator, Mr. Metzgar owns cattle and a 289-acre farm in Somerset County. He noted the legitimate use of xylazine as a livestock tranquilizer and wanted to ensure his bill does not block the legal supply of the drug. This interference from xylazine could “really jeopardize the food supply,” he said, since no other tranquilizer has such a strong effect on livestock.

But those on the ground who work with people exposed to xylazine said the move would only encourage criminalization and pose a further threat to an unregulated drug market.

“I feel like this doesn't address the problem in a meaningful way,” said Alice Bell, overdose prevention project coordinator at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a syringe service program. “If it made xylazine more difficult to obtain, another drug that we know less about would likely take its place.”

This is already happening in Philadelphia. Last month, Savage Sisters began detecting an unprecedented drug in the fentanyl samples they tested: medetomidine, an animal tranquilizer that is 200 times more potent than xylazine.

“[Scheduling drugs] “Usually provides an incentive for the criminal drug market to look for new substitutes,” said Ms. Laurel of Savage Sisters. “This will cause problems with the already unpredictable supply of medicines.

“Because the supply in Philadelphia is so toxic and volatile, it affects every county in Pennsylvania,” she said. “We see bags of stamps that have been seen as far away as Pittsburgh,” she said, referring to the tiny wax packages used to store illegal drugs.

Mr. Metzgar acknowledged the history of criminalizing people with addiction problems and said it was a topic of discussion in the House vote.

“We definitely need to take over this area of ​​education,” he said. “People lose entire body parts as a result [drug], if they don't die completely. … But I think not criminalizing and only pursuing education is a real mistake.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency found in 2023 that mixtures of xylazine and fentanyl had been seized in 48 states and Washington, DC

“We know where this xylazine comes from – it comes as a powder from China and as a liquid that comes from veterinary supply chains,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said during a press conference in October.

Michael Lynch, medical director of the UPMC Pittsburgh Poison Center, said in a statement that it is important to recognize how dangerous xylazine is for Pennsylvania residents with substance use disorders.

“We hope that the criminalization of illegal possession of this drug will not be used as a tool to further criminalize people with substance use disorders, but rather as a way to reduce their risk of illness and injury through monitoring the substance at the distribution level,” he said.

But workers like Ms. Bell and Ms. Laurel would rather see a safe, regulated drug supply to inform people about what they are taking – rather than the game of “Whac-A-Mole” they currently engage in when new drugs are introduced come onto the market Medetomidine comes onto the scene.

And it's not just those engaged in harm reduction who should pay close attention, Ms. Laurel said.

“Emergency rooms, emergency responders, police officers and firefighters, we all need to be prepared for the next polysubstance once access to xylazine is restricted.”

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