PALMER – Test strips used to check illicit drug supplies for a powerful additive that can increase the chance of overdose have become a hot item at addiction intervention programs in Mat-Su and Anchorage, signaling its growing presence in Alaska, advocates say.
Xylazine, also known as “zombie drug” or “tranq,” is a sedative legally used by veterinarians to tranquilize large animals such as horses. But when mixed with fentanyl or heroin, often without users’ knowledge, xylazine can quickly prove fatal because it does not respond to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, public health officials warn. Prolonged use of xylazine also causes life-threatening body sores, they say.
“Like we’ve seen with other things, it first shows up here and there, and then all the sudden it is everywhere,” said Venus Staten, a director with the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, an addiction support service also known as Four A’s. “It’s just now showing up on the streets here. I think we should be careful not to create a panic, but I do think people should be informed.”
Tagged an “emerging threat” in April by a White House drug task force, xylazine is most frequently used by traffickers as a low-cost additive to stretch supplies of heroin and fentanyl while also doubling as a way to make those drugs even more addicting, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
While illicit use was first documented by federal drug enforcement officials in Puerto Rico more than 20 years ago, its use as an additive in the synthetic opioid fentanyl triggered a 276% spike in xylazine-involved deaths nationwide between January 2019 and June 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far no Alaskans have been documented as dying from a xylazine overdose, according to state health data. Last year xylazine was found in 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by federal drug enforcement officials nationwide, they said. Data on the prevalence of xylazine in Alaska is not available.
But advocates at Four A’s locations in Mat-Su and Anchorage said they’ve heard from clients that their illicit drug supplies have tested positive for xylazine in at least 10 instances since early November.
The test strips, which can detect the drug’s presence in opioids and other illicit drugs, first became available through Alaska’s public health department in late October, officials there said.
State officials originally had 1,200 strips on hand and distributed about 850 of those to drug users through Four A’s in Anchorage and Mat-Su, according to officials at the nonprofit. Of those, about 625 have been requested by users in Mat-Su, where demand has grown rapidly, said Jennifer Douglas, a Wasilla-based harm reduction specialist with Four A’s.
Douglas said she’s been sharing information on the dangers of xylazine with clients who visit the Wasilla location to receive clean syringes or similar test strips used to detect fentanyl. She said clients tell her they want both strips because they’re concerned their drug supplies are contaminated with additives without their knowledge.
“The reality is that these people aren’t trying to die,” she said. “They want to be safe. That’s why they come here.”
State officials said they do not anticipate a test strip shortage.
Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 161 Alaskans died of a drug overdose, with 111 of those caused by fentanyl, according to preliminary data from the Alaska Department of Health.
Nationally, there were about 107,000 drug overdose deaths for the 12-month period ending in June, with about 82,000 of those caused by opioids such as fentanyl, according to preliminary data from the CDC.