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Xylazine or Tranq: Zombie Drug is New Focus for Drug Arrests in Texas

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Drug arrests in Texas that may include other serious charges (like conspiracy or homicide) are known to be fixed upon fentanyl these days; both Texas and federal law enforcement are blatantly targeting fentanyl use as well as its manufacture and distribution.  For more, read our earlier discussions in Fentanyl Charges Under Federal Law: Felonies and Range of Sentencing; Texas Governor’s Designation of Mexican Cartels As Terrorist Organizations: Criminal Defense Perspective; and Drug-Induced Homicide Prosecutions in Texas: Overdose Murders.

However, a new drug called xylazine is rapidly becoming the focus of law enforcement in Texas and the rest of the nation.  Xylazine is not approved for human use or consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Likewise, it is not listed as an illegal drug known as a “controlled substance” under the criminal statutes.  It is not an opioid like heroin or fentanyl.

Xylazine is trending as a substance mixed (cut) with fentanyl or other illegal drugs.  It is becoming more and more available among cartel distribution channels even though many users may not realize that xylazine has been added to their drug of choice somewhere along the trafficking route.

The FDA knows of street names for xylazine or xylazine-laced drugs that include “tranq,” “tranq dope,” “sleep-cut,” “Philly dope,” and “zombie drug.” One of the key problems with the use of xylazine is its potency.  Xylazine can easily cause death.  It can also cause human flesh to develop rotting sores (hence its nickname of “the zombie drug”).

What is Xylazine?

Since 1972, xylazine has been a respected drug used by veterinarians in the critical care of both large and small animals.  Explains the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),[x]ylazine is a safe and effective sedative and analgesic used in dogs, cats, cattle, horses as well as elk and deer to calm them and facilitate safe handling, and to perform diagnostic and surgical procedures.”

It is considered to be “critically important” in clinical veterinary treatment.  Xylazine must be available for animal care in Texas and elsewhere in this country.  Vets need it.

This would not ordinarily be an issue, except for the growing popularity of xylazine as a street drug for humans and the corresponding efforts by law enforcement to stop its availability in the marketplace.  Read, “Unlawful xylazine receives more scrutiny to prevent inclusion in illegal drugs,” published by the AVMA News on March 1, 2023.

In February 2023, an FDA Import Alert blocked the importing into the United States of both (1) xylazine as a completed product ready for use as well as (2) xylazine’s component ingredients.  This is of great concern to the country’s veterinarians because they need this drug.  The import alert will impact the vet’s ability to get the drug for use in veterinary treatment.  Right now, it’s a problem that is still in the process of being solved.

March 2023: State and Federal Public Health Warnings

Meanwhile, both state and federal drug enforcement agencies have recently issued very frightening public health warnings about xylazine.

1. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Xylazine Public Safety Alert on March 20, 2023

In November 2022, the DEA first wrote to health care providers, warning them of “…possible xylazine inclusion in fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit drug overdoses, as naloxone may not be able to reverse its effects. FDA is aware of increasing reports of serious side effects from individuals exposed to fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit drugs contaminated with xylazine.”

On March 20, 2023, the DEA took a further step, issuing a national public safety alert regarding the drug, particularly its use in combination with fentanyl.  The core message is that xylazine used in tandem with fentanyl can quickly kill.

Another scary warning from the federal agency: when xylazine is mixed with other drugs and ingested by a human, serious bodily wounds can develop that may involve necrosis, where human tissue literally rots away.

From the DEA’s Administrator Anne Milgram:

Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.  DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.

2. Texas (DSHS) Public Health Warning for Xylazine on March 21, 2023

Here in the State of Texas, an independent state health advisory for Texans was released on March 21, 2023 by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).

The state agency explains to Texas health care providers that Texans are dying in “xylazine-laced drug overdoses” where xylazine is cut with illegal recreational drugs (e.g., fentanyl, heroin, and benzodiazepines) “…to extend the duration of the drug’s effects or increase its street value.”

The DSHS also explains that not only can xylazine boost the chances of overdose because of its “deeply sedative effect,” it is harder for doctors to treat after someone is overdosing because naloxone (Narcan) does not help.  Narcan only works with opioid overdoses, and xylazine is not an opioid.

Other dangers in the DSHS warning: xylazine can make someone so sedated that they can be hurt or killed in accidents like falls or from exposure to extreme weather (hypothermia in winter; heat stroke in summer).  Xylazine can permanently damage muscles, nerves, and kidneys, as well, because it restricts their blood flow.

And the DSHS also warns that chronic injection of xylazine can result in zombie-like “…severe, necrotic skin ulcers and abscesses that are distinctly different from other types of soft-tissue infections associated with intravenous drug use.  These ulcerations can develop away from an injection site on other parts of the body and around other cuts.

Bipartisan Congressional Action to Pass the “Combating Illicit Xylazine Act”

On March 29, 2023, proposed legislation was introduced in both the Senate (SB 993) and the House of Representatives (HB 1839) entitled the Combating Illicit Xylazine Act.  This legislation, if enacted into federal law, would add xylazine as a Schedule III controlled substance as defined in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (“the Controlled Substances Act”).  (Fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance.)

“Controlled Substance” Under the Controlled Substances Act

Under the Controlled Substances Act, drugs are listed in the law and made illegal, with severity of punishment depending upon which one of the five schedules they are placed within.  Schedule I has the most severe sentencing range, with Schedule V the least.

The term “controlled substance” means “a drug or other substance, or immediate precursor, included in schedule I, II, III, IV, or V of part B of this subchapter. The term does not include distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages, or tobacco, as those terms are defined or used in subtitle E of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.”  21 U.S.C. § 802(6).

1.  Schedule III Drug Under the Controlled Substances Act

A schedule III drug is defined under the law as:

(A)  The drug or other substance has a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II.

(B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

(C) Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.

From the Department of Justice comes the following explanation of drugs listed within the Controlled Substances Act Schedule III:

  • Substances in this schedule have a potential for abuse less than substances in Schedules I or II and abuse may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.
  • Examples of Schedule III narcotics include: products containing not more than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with Codeine®), and buprenorphine (Suboxone®).
  • Examples of Schedule IIIN non-narcotics include: benzphetamine (Didrex®), phendimetrazine, ketamine, and anabolic steroids such as Depo®-Testosterone. 

2. Federal Punishment for a Schedule III Conviction

Punishment for a Schedule III conviction in any amount for simple possession involves, for a first offense, not more than one year imprisonment in a federal prison facility with a possible maximum fine of $1,000. A second offense can come with two years’ incarceration and a fine of $2500.  Any further convictions on this same crime of simple possession can bring three years’ incarceration and a fine of $5000. See, 21 USC § 844.

In the case of xylazine, most charges are not going to involve simple possession of this drug alone since it is commonly found mixed together with other illegal drugs listed in the federal law as controlled substances (like fentanyl).  Xylazine arrests are going probably going to involve more than a simple possession charge.

Trafficking, for instance, becomes a much more serious offense with higher sentencing possibilities.  For the first offense, the sentence cannot be more than 10 years, but if there was death or serious injury involved, then the maximum rises to 15 years, and maximum fines of $500,000 if an individual and $2.5 Million if not an individual. For a second offense, the punishment can be a maximum of 20 years and if death or serious injury was involved it rises to 30 years with maximum fines of $1 Million for an individual, $5 Million if not an individual.

These cases may well also include other felony charges, such as conspiracy or money laundering.  The defense will be addressing the impact of the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines and things like the possibility of a Safety Value defense.

Criminal Defense Impact of Adding Xylazine to the Controlled Substances Act

There are three big things that will happen if this new law is passed.  First, the Combating Illicit Xylazine Act would amend 21 U.S.C. §802 as follows, to include the drug with a Schedule III classification:

(1) by redesignating the second paragraph (57) (relating to serious drug felony) and paragraph (58) as paragraphs (58) and (59), respectively; and

(2) by adding at the end the following:

“(60) The term ‘xylazine’ means any of the following substances, including their salts, isomers, and salts of isomers whenever the existence of such salts, isomers, and salts of isomers is possible within the specific chemical designation:

“(A) Xylazine.

“(B) Xylazine-M (2,6Mich dimethylaniline).

“(C) Xylazine-M (N-thiourea-2,6-dimethylaniline).

“(D) Xylazine-M (sulfone-HO-) isomer 2.

“(E) Xylazine-M (HO-2,6-dimethylaniline isomer 1).

“(F) Xylazine-M (HO-2,6-dimethylaniline isomer 2).

“(G) Xylazine M (oxo-).

“(H) Xylazine-M (HO-) isomer 1.

“(I) Xylazine-M (HO-) isomer 1 glucuronide.

“(J) Xylazine-M (HO-) isomer 2.

“(K) Xylazine-M (HO-) isomer 2 glucuronide.

“(L) Xylazine-M (HO-oxo-) isomer 1.

“(M) Xylazine-M (HO-oxo-) isomer 1 glucuronide.

“(N) Xylazine-M (HO-oxo-) isomer 2.

“(O) Xylazine-M (HO-oxo-) isomer 2 glucuronide.

“(P) Xylazine-M (sulfone).

“(Q) Xylazine-M (sulfone-HO-) isomer 1.

“(R) Any compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any quantity of any of the substances referred to in subparagraphs (A) through (Q).”.

Second, the proposed legislation would also amend Section 307(i) of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. §827) regarding narco trafficking as follows:

(1) in the matter preceding paragraph (1)—

(A) by inserting “or xylazine” after “gamma hydroxybutyric acid”;

(B) by inserting “or 512” after “section 505”; and

(C) by inserting “respectively,” after “the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,”; and

(2) in paragraph (6), by inserting “or xylazine” after “gamma hydroxybutyric acid”.

Finally, it would declare illicit xylazine use an emerging drug threat, as defined in section 702 of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 (21 USC §1701), in the United States.  This allows for coordinated law enforcement efforts, including media campaigns and joint task forces, to work against the threat.  See, 21 USC §1708.

Tremendous Push for Xylazine Addition to Controlled Substances Act

The police are very much in favor of its passage.  From a letter sent to the Senate by the Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Yoes:

I am writing on behalf of the members of the Fraternal Order of Police to advise you of our support for S. 993, the “Combating Illicit Xylazine Act.”

…. Xylazine, also known as “tranq” or “tranq dope,” is making the deadliest drug crisis our country has ever faced even worse. According to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA in 2022 contained xylazine.

Your legislation will take the appropriate steps to address this crisis by adding xylazine to the Controlled Substances Act, listing it as a Schedule III drug for illicit use. The bill would allow ranchers and large animal veterinarians access to xylazine as its use is a critical part of their work, while at the same time allowing the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to track and combat its illegal use as a street drug.

They are not alone.  According to a news release that accompanied the bill’s introduction in the United States Senate, the following organizations are also in favor of its passage: (1) the American Veterinary Medical Association, (2) Nevada Cattlemen Association, (3) National Association of Police Organizations, (4) National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, (5) United States Deputy Sheriff’s Association, (5) Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, (6) Peace Officers Research Association of California, (7) North American Meat Institute, (8) Animal Health Institute, (9) the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, and (10) the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Xylazine and Illegal Controlled Substances Felony Arrests Under Texas Law

Of note, Texas law is almost identical to the federal Controlled Substances Act.  It can be found in Chapters 481 – 486 of the Texas Health and Safety Code.  Opioids are classified as a Penalty Group 1 (PG-1) drug in Texas.

In order for xylazine to become an illegal controlled substance under state law, the Texas Legislature will have to pass a similar statute to the proposed federal Combating Illicit Xylazine Act.

Xylazine Drug Arrests in Texas: Criminal Defense

The pending legislation before Congress, once passed into law, will change how xylazine is treated in criminal cases filed in federal court.  It is expected that the State of Texas will follow suit, and xylazine will soon be a defined controlled substance felony under state law.  There is a lot of lobbying to get xylazine legislation passed as soon as possible.

Today, even before these new laws become effective, Xylazine can be at the core of a felony drug arrest for possession or trafficking since it is so often joined with other illegal drugs like fentanyl.  Sadly, deaths resulting from xylazine may add death-related overdose murder charges against the accused.

Even before its arguably inevitable inclusion as a Schedule III drug within the federal Controlled Substances Act (and later, the corresponding Texas statute), xylazine can be the basis for some very serious felony charges — especially since law enforcement is zealously targeting its use.

An experienced and aggressive criminal defense strategy will be warranted in these cases.

For more, read:


For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read,” Pre-Arrest Criminal Investigations” and “What Happens When You Plead Guilty to Federal Drug Crime? From Guilty Plea to Sentencing Hearing in a Drug Case.

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