31 July 2023 | 6:00
The lab report left the prominent New York businessman stunned.
The 40-something from Massapequa Park, a tony suburban town on Long Island, had dabbled in cocaine now and then, but nothing harder.
But his toxicology report painted a very different picture: His blood was laced with fentanyl and xylazine — the animal tranquilizer known as “tranq” that is now infecting not only hardcore addicts but also recreational drug users by slipping into the cocaine supply .
“He said the only drug he did was cocaine, as a fun thing to do with friends occasionally,” Dr. Carol McKinney, a clinical social worker at Victory Recovery Partners in Massapequa Park, recently told The Post.
“He was shocked when we gave him the test results that showed xylazine was in his system.”
Tranq is often associated with city councils — with videos showing barely conscious addicts wandering mindlessly through drug-ridden neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Chicago, victims of a sedative so powerful it can knock down a horse.
Now the “zombie drug” is lurking in mainstream party drugs like cocaine, law enforcement officials and health professionals say.
“We’ve seen an increase in the distribution of cocaine-xylazine mixtures at street level,” Frank Tarentino, the special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York branch, told The Post.
“It’s widespread. And it’s getting worse.”
The agency has found that about 15% of all drugs tested in its Northeast Regional Laboratory include xylazine, Tarentino said.
And more than 85% of drugs with xylazine also contain fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid, Tarentino added.
What is tranq?
Tranq is a powerful veterinary sedative known in medical circles as xylazine.
Although never approved for human use, the drug has somehow found its way into the country’s illegal drug supply as a cutting agent, wreaking havoc on people suffering from addiction.
Tranq – which is often found mixed with fentanyl – can cause flesh-eating lesions and psychosis. It also puts its victims into a slavish state of semi-consciousness, which can lead to robberies and other forms of street crime.
Tranq’s use is expanding rapidly as it spreads from coast to coast.
By 2021, the number of overdose deaths involving xylazine was 35 times higher than it was just three years earlier, according to a June report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This means that cocaine, heroin, meth or fake painkillers that people buy on the street can easily be mixed with a malicious mixture that can kill with just a few grains.
The situation can increasingly blindside users who do not expect the flesh-rotting, psychosis-inducing calm of their party drugs.
“Young people can innocently take a pill not knowing it has fentanyl in it, or that it has fentanyl and xylazine,” Tarentino said.
“That’s what people should worry about: Tranq can end up anywhere, anytime, and can kill anyone.”
This warning is supported by statistics showing that xylazine overdose deaths increased 20-fold between 2015 and 2020 in all regions tested, according to a study published in the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence last year.
In the Big Apple, which in 2021 began testing deceased opioid overdose victims for tranq, about one in five such deaths involved xylazine, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Nationwide, about one in 20 fatal opioid overdoses that year involved tranq, the department added.
McKinney supported Tarentino’s concerns, telling The Post that she’s had plenty of patients test positive for xylazine since Victory Recovery Partners — which operates a constellation of rehab centers across Long Island — began testing for it about eight months ago.
Earlier this month, 86 patients tested positive for the sedative over seven days, McKinney said.
“The patients don’t even know,” McKinney said. “I say, ‘Well, it’s in your system.’ And they say, ‘There’s no way my dealer wouldn’t do that!’
“I say, ‘Guess what?’ Your dealer doesn’t know.'”
Few know this better than Andrew Walsleben, a 27-year-old from Long Island who has been hooked on illegal drugs since the age of 14.
At first it was pills, like Percocet and oxycodone. At 16, he shot heroin. In 2017, his drug habit landed him in federal prison, where he stayed for more than four years.
After his release in 2021, Walsleben developed a $1,000-a-drug cocaine habit. week that led him to start shooting the drug in search of a “better high”.
That’s when he first inadvertently encountered tranq, he said.
Soon he was afflicted with rotting flesh wounds that would not heal and the drug’s trademark psychosis – which caused him to see shadow people.
“I thought people were putting spider eggs in my cocaine, and I saw spiders under my skin and under my toenails,” Walsleben said. “I saw big tumors moving in my body when I looked in the mirror.”
Walsleben, who kicked the habit about two months ago, is convinced the sedative cocaine is to blame.
“I’ve only used powdered cocaine for the past year,” he said. “(But) I got the sores from the xylazine.”
Doctors do not understand why dealers have chosen to cut their narcotic supplies of tranq. The sedative doesn’t quite match the mission of drugs like cocaine, which are known to transform their users into wired, hyperactive messes.
“It makes a lot of sense with fentanyl or heroin,” said Dr. Steve Salvatore, chief physician at Victory Recovery Partners, to The Post. “It makes no sense in cocaine … except that we might not be dealing with biochemists.”
But the dangers are clear, Salvatore said.
Cocaine is toxic enough to a user’s heart – it can cause coronary spasms in long-term addicts. But combining an upper and a downer — which effectively puts one foot on the gas and the other on the brake — is particularly dangerous, Salvatore said.
“The respiratory, central nervous and cardiovascular systems are put in a conflicting position as to whether to slow down or speed up,” he said.
“This can lead to dangerous side effects, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, anxiety and paranoia, and death.”
Police and doctors may encounter this more and more as the fentanyl-and-xylazine combination creeps into the wider drug supply — which it likely will because crooks have begun importing xylazine, a cheap cutting agent, by the kilogram, according to the DEA’s Tarentino .
It could hit the Big Apple, which Tarentino called the Mecca of drug dealers.
“New York City is the center,” he said. “It’s a destination city for these large amounts of cocaine, heroin, meth, fentanyl and xylazine (that is) and then distributed to the outlying cities and states.
“In the last two years we have seen this increase (in tranq imports),” he continued. “And it continues to rise.”
Bridget Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, believes tranq is mixed with drugs like heroin and cocaine here in America — not abroad — where the synthetic cutting agent is often made.
A legal sedative with legal veterinary use, xylazine is not classified as a controlled substance in the United States.
As such, drug labs certified by the Empire State do not test for it when police make a large drug seizure locally, even though the DEA does at the federal level.
Brennan previously told The Post that she wants the drug to be designated a controlled substance, which would help authorities regain some control over its distribution.
“We should be able to come up with legislation that would allow us both to control it and to require those who distribute it … to maintain control of it and verify who their customers are,” said Brennan.
“The most effective way to prevent loss of life is to cut off the supply at the top of the chain,” she added. “You don’t want to wait until it hits the street to try to scoop it up.”
It would also let labs start testing for it, which could lead to more accurate statistics.
Brennan said the city’s crime lab notes the presence of xylazine in the chemist’s notes, but not in the lab report. In other words, authorities looking for evidence of tranq must go through a longer and more arduous process to find out if it is there.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office has been similarly frustrated.
“Our crime lab can’t test for it because it’s not illegal in New York,” said a spokesman, referring to xylazine that can be present in drug seizures.
“We find (tranq) in a few places … but it’s almost anecdotal because they don’t test. So we don’t know how widespread it is.”
Often, authorities in Suffolk County only find xylazine in bodies because it shows up in toxicology screenings, the district attorney’s office said.
The DEA also wants to have the drug made a controlled substance, which would give the agency the authority to arrest dealers of illegal tranq.
“We take it very seriously,” Tarentino said.
Until then, drug users take note: There are dragons lurking in the little bags of bleached powder.
“We have so many people come in who had xylazine in their cocaine,” McKinney of Victory Recovery told The Post.
“The cocaine that an actor or a wealthy Manhattan businessman might do over drinks after work on a Friday night no longer exists.”