The emerging street drug “tranq” is dubbed the “zombie drug” because it often leaves users with open sores and a disoriented gait. Tranq, better known to veterinarians as Xylazine, an animal sedative, has been making its way into batches of illicit opioids in cities coast to coast.
Xylazine is currently not a scheduled narcotic, but there will be calls from public health officials, law enforcement, and the public to criminalize the use, possession, and sale of the substance. An early example is the proposed bill SB2089 in Illinois which amends the state control substances act to recognize the additive as a Schedule I controlled substance (“no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”).
The horrific images of the carnage created by the drug are enough to provoke calls to have it criminalized. But such outcry for reactionary measures to reduce the presence of tranq on the black market is misguided. Not only will expanding the scope of our failed five-decade War on Drugs end up only harming society. There are many other reasons why the sale and use of Xylazine should not be prohibited.
Prolonging the Drug War
The budget for the National Drug Control Program agencies in fiscal year 2023 is a staggering $42.5 billion. It is estimated that trillions of dollars has been squandered on the Drug War in total. What have we gotten with this exorbitant multi-decade expenditure? It has done little to stifle the progress of drug cartels. The illicit drug trade remains immensely profitable, yielding “...estimated annual revenues of between $426 billion and $652 billion.” By the government’s admission, the cocaine supply remained steady during the pandemic; the supply of heroin and fentanyl remained high. In addition, the black market for methamphetamine has expanded to regions of the United States where the drug has traditionally been scarce. The excessive expense of the war has done little to curtail the exponential increase in drug overdoses over the past 20 years; almost 75 percent of all overdoses in 2020 were opioid-related. Any cost-benefit analysis would indicate that the Drug War has been a colossal failure, and that dedicating more time and resources to combat newly prevalent street drugs, even if one of the side effects is rotting flesh, is a losing battle.
Placing another intoxicant on the Schedule I list would only expand the scope and authority of law enforcement agencies. The civil liberty violations perpetrated in the name of this paternalistic public health crusade would continue. Examples include civil asset forfeiture (four states abolished this practice as of 2021) and the controversy over no-knock warrants (which violates the knock-and-announce rule in Common Law).
It’s chilling to think about the innocent lives lost due to such aggressive tactics (exacerbated by the militarization of the police during the 1980s) to enforce drug laws. Many innocent people have died due to such procedures; high-profile examples include Rev. Accelyne Williams and Breonna Taylor. Tranq is not an excuse to continue the failed, costly, and unjust policies of the Drug War, which criminalizes voluntary exchange between consenting adults.
Focus on Treatment and Harm Reduction
The rate of recidivism is high among addicts for violating drug laws. The observation that treatment has been more effective and less costly than incarceration has been enduring. As long as the possession and use of addictive drugs remain illegal, addicts will fear seeking treatment and medical attention. The legal system operates as “a barrier to treatment” (due to fear of legal penalties). The use of dangerous substances should not be encouraged; removing the legal penalties would relinquish the stigma. After Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, the number of addicts in treatment increased by 147 percent between 1999 and 2003. Although tranq is currently an additive to opioids, it may become the preferred drug of abuse on the streets (e.g. the shift from heroin to fentanyl). If tranq is the future of addiction in America, we should not erect legal barriers discouraging addicts from seeking treatment.
Even if stringent penalties are enacted to prevent the use, sale, possession, and manufacturing of tranq, people will probably continue to ingest it. Since tranq is more potent than fentanyl and creates oozing wounds, harm reduction initiatives implemented by private organizations might be a better way to manage this crisis.
The success of needle exchange programs and safe injection sites in reducing the prevalence of bloodborne pathogens from intravenous drug use would apply to the Tranq epidemic. But also providing on-site wound care would help reduce the onset of infections and the need for amputation.
Prohibition Will Only Make Tranq More Dangerous
Consumer demand drives all markets, including those for illegal products. Enterprising chemists synthesize novel substances to exploit loopholes in drug laws. A decade ago, the media reported on the dangers of bath salts (synthetic cathinone) and synthetic cannabinoids (K2). If Marijuana and Cocaine were never outlawed, neither compound would exist. Both substitutes intended to circumvent US controlled substance laws. Arguably, the pharmacological effects of both drugs are more harmful than the substances they imitate.
If Tranq is placed on the Schedule I list, there is no doubt that clandestine labs will attempt to replicate the sedative. A molecularly altered variant of the drug may surface as means to evade drug laws, possibly creating a more deadly substance.