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Bill criminalizing the possession of xylazine heads to Pa. governor

Legislation aims to classify xylazine as a Schedule III drug

By Hanna Webster
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In an effort to temper the presence of xylazine, the powerful animal tranquilizer that is increasingly showing up in Pennsylvania’s street drug supply, state legislators this week passed a bill that would criminalize illicit possession.

The Pa. House and Senate overwhelmingly approved House Bill 1661 to classify 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 49-1 on May 1.

Manuel Bonder, spokesperson for Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office, said Mr. Shapiro plans to sign the bill into law.

HB 1661 signals months of coordinated action among state lawmakers to rein in access to xylazine, a substance that has led to dangerous skin wounds and amputations.

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

Mr. Shapiro last April moved to temporarily classify xylazine as a Schedule III drug in an attempt to curb access, via executive order.

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

A powerful tranquilizer used by veterinarians, xylazine has not been 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 Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, a street where open-air drug use often occurs.

Wounds caused by xylazine sometimes require amputation; experts think the tissue suffers from a lack of oxygen and dies, at times exposing bone.

Xylazine is gripping Allegheny County, too, with a growing number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths involving the drug. Preliminary data from the Medical Examiner’s Office found that, since May 2023, nearly half of all fentanyl-related deaths investigated involved the drug, up from a crude estimate of about a quarter, according to harm reduction advocates on the ground.

“I really appreciate the governor’s support from the beginning of this bill,” said Pa. House Rep. Carl Metzgar, R- Somerset, prime sponsor of the bill. “He’s been great to work with on this issue.”

In addition to his role as a lawmaker, Mr. Metzgar also owns a 289-acre farm in Somerset County, along with cattle. He noted the legitimate use of xylazine as a livestock sedative and wanted to ensure his bill would not block the licit supply of the drug. That hindrance to xylazine could “really jeopardize the food supply,” he said because no other sedative works on livestock that large.

But those on the ground working with people who encounter xylazine said the move will do nothing but encourage criminalization and pose further danger to an unregulated drug market.

“I feel like this does not meaningfully address the problem,” said Alice Bell, overdose prevention project coordinator at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a syringe service program. “If it would make it harder to obtain xylazine, probably another drug we know less about would take its place.”

That’s already happening in Philadelphia. In the past month, Savage Sisters has started detecting a never-before-seen drug in fentanyl samples they test: medetomidine, an animal sedative 200 times more potent than xylazine.

"[Scheduling drugs] usually incentivizes the criminal drug market to look for new substitutions,” said Ms. Laurel, of Savage Sisters. “This is going to cause problems to an already unpredictable drug supply.

“The Philadelphia supply being so toxic and volatile affects every county in Pennsylvania,” she said. “We’re seeing stamp bags that have also been seen as far as Pittsburgh,” she said, referring to the tiny wax packaging used to hold illicit drugs.

Mr. Metzgar recognized the history of criminalization of people with addiction and said this was a topic of discussion during the House vote.

“We definitely do need to do that education side,” he said. “People lose entire parts of their body to this [drug], if they don’t die altogether. ... But to not criminalize and only do education I think would be a real mistake.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency in 2023 noted that mixtures of xylazine and fentanyl had been seized in 48 states and Washington, D.C.

“We know where this xylazine comes from — it comes as a powder from China and as liquid diverted from veterinary supply chains,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said during an October news conference.

Michael Lynch, medical director of the UPMC Pittsburgh Poison Center, said in a statement that it’s crucial to recognize how dangerous xylazine is to Pennsylvanians with substance-use disorders.

“Our hope is that criminalizing illicit possession of this drug will not be used as a tool to further criminalize people with substance-use disorder, but as a way to decrease their risk of illness and injury by 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 of what they’re taking — instead of the “game of Whac-A-Mole” that they currently deal with when new drugs like medetomidine come onto the scene.

And it’s not just those in harm reduction who ought to pay close attention, said Ms. Laurel.

“Emergency rooms, EMTs, police officers and firefighters, we all have to be prepared for what the next polysubstance will be once xylazine access is limited.”

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