Animal Tranquilizer Floods Illicit Drug Markets in Maryland

Animal Tranquilizer Floods Illicit Drug Markets in Maryland

NIST research chemist Ed Sisco analyzing a sample on a DART-MS instrument.

Credit: B. Hayes/NIST

An animal tranquilizer has flooded the illicit drug market in Maryland, according to a new study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Maryland Department of Health. When injected, the tranquilizer, xylazine, causes wounds at the injection site, in some cases so severe that people need to have their arms or legs amputated.

The study, which analyzed residues from illegally purchased drugs to determine the chemical compounds the drugs contained, found xylazine in 80% of samples that included the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The residue samples were collected from empty bags and paraphernalia voluntarily provided by people who used illegal drugs in Maryland during the 11-month period from October 2021 through August 2022.

“We knew xylazine was present in the drug supply,” said Meghan Appley, a research scientist working at NIST and an author of the study. “But we did not expect the prevalence to be nearly so high.”

The study, conducted as part of NIST’s Rapid Drug Analysis and Research, or RaDAR program, was published in the journal Forensic Chemistry.

Another alarming result from the study is that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that mimics the effects of heroin but is far more potent, has almost completely displaced heroin in Maryland’s underground drug market. Of the 496 samples tested in the study, only six, or 1.2%, contained heroin.

“If you think you’re buying heroin,” said Ed Sisco, the NIST research chemist who led the study, “you’re not.”

The 10 most commonly detected compounds in residue samples from illegal drugs in Maryland, plus heroin (which ranks 22nd), as found in a recent NIST study. ..

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