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Horse sedative use among humans spreads in deadly mixture of 'tranq' and fentanyl

Sam Ogozalek, Tampa Bay Times, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

TREASURE ISLAND, Fla. — Andrew McClave Jr. loved to lift weights. The 6-foot-4-inch bartender resembled a bodybuilder and once posed for a photo flexing his muscles with former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.

“He was extremely dedicated to it,” said his father, Andrew McClave Sr., “to the point where it was almost like he missed his medication if he didn’t go.”

But the hobby took its toll. According to a police report, a friend told the Treasure Island Police Department that McClave, 36, suffered from back problems and took unprescribed pills to reduce the pain.

In late 2022, the friend discovered McClave in bed. He had no pulse. A medical examiner determined he had a fatal amount of fentanyl, cocaine, and xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer used to sedate horses, in his system, an autopsy report said. Heart disease was listed as a contributing factor.

McClave is among more than 260 people across Florida who died in one year from accidental overdoses involving xylazine, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of medical examiner data from 2022, the first year state officials began tracking the substance. Numbers for 2023 haven’t been published.

The death toll reflects xylazine’s spread into the nation’s illicit drug supply. Federal regulators approved the tranquilizer for animals in the early 1970s and it’s used to sedate horses for procedures like oral exams and colic treatment, said Todd Holbrook, an equine medicine specialist at the University of Florida. Reports of people using xylazine emerged in Philadelphia, then the drug spread south and west.

 

What’s not clear is exactly what role the sedative plays in overdose deaths, because the Florida data shows no one fatally overdosed on xylazine alone. The painkiller fentanyl was partly to blame in all but two cases in which the veterinary drug was included as a cause of death, according to the Times analysis. Cocaine or alcohol played roles in the cases in which fentanyl was not involved.

Fentanyl is generally the “800-pound gorilla,” according to Lewis Nelson, chair of the emergency medicine department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and xylazine may increase the risk of overdose, though not substantially.

But xylazine appears to complicate the response to opioid overdoses when they do happen and makes it harder to save people. Xylazine can slow breathing to dangerous levels, according to federal health officials, and it doesn’t respond to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan. Part of the problem is that many people may not know they are taking the horse tranquilizer when they use other drugs, so they aren’t aware of the additional risks.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee made xylazine a Schedule 1 drug like heroin or ecstasy in 2016, and several other states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia have taken action to classify it as a scheduled substance, too. But it’s not prohibited at the federal level. Legislation pending in Congress would criminalize illicit xylazine use nationwide.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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