'Flesh-eating zombie drug' has hit UK market, experts warn

By John Mercury April 11, 2024

A powerful animal tranquilliser plaguing cities in the US has now “penetrated” the illegal drugs market in the UK, a report has warned.

Xylazine – often referred to as “Tranq” or “the zombie drug” because of its effect on users – has already been labelled an “emerging threat to the nation” by the White House.

The drug was linked to a UK death for the first time during a post-mortem of Karl Warburton, found dead at his home in Solihull in May 2022.

Users often develop skin sores and infections where they inject which can start to rot – leading it to be dubbed “flesh-eating” – and have previously told Sky News that the mix increases their addiction.

Researchers, led by academics from King’s College London, say the health threat has “now expanded to the United Kingdom”.

Their study, published in the journal Addiction, examined various toxicology, drug testing and drug seizure sources.

Read more: The new drug causing horror on US streets

While usually mixed with illegal drugs, it found xylazine had been discovered in counterfeit prescription medication tablets, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) vapes, and cocaine.

Danielle, a mother of three. Until a couple of years ago, Danielle worked as a certified recovery specialist to support people in rehab. She shows the wounds on her arms.
Tranq users can develop sores or infections

What is xylazine?

In the hands of vets, xylazine is a commonly used tranquilliser, often mixed with ketamine to sedate animals, including horses, cattle, and cats.

As a non-opioid sedative, it is able to inhibit the transmission of brain impulses to the central nervous system. But in recent years, it has become synonymous with a darker usage, as a cutting agent for illegal drugs such as heroin.

In the US, its mixture with fentanyl has had a widespread impact among drug users in American cities. Such is the concern in Washington about its spread, that Joe Biden’s administration has labelled it an emerging threat to the nation and outlined a six-point plan to tackle it.

There it has gained the nicknamed “tranq” or “the zombie drug” – because of its characteristic effect of putting users into a zombie-like state. But it has, perhaps, an even more grim side effect on users, who often develop skin sores and infections where the drug is injected.

Xylazine’s usage appears to be increasing at an alarming rate. From November 2021 until August 2022, 80% of drug paraphernalia which tested positive for fentanyl at needle exchange programmes in Maryland also contained xylazine.

And in May last year, the first death following its usage was recorded outside the US – Karl Warburton who died at his home in Solihull in May 2022.

Researchers found 35 cases of xylazine in England, Scotland and Wales by the end of August last year. No cases were found in Northern Ireland.

They published data on samples from toxicology labs, where the drug was found in 16 people – including 11 who had died.

Eleven of the samples were from last summer.

They also referenced the death of Mr Warburton, who the coroner said had a history of using illegal drugs.

Karl Warburton, 43, died of an overdose last May Pic: Facebook
Karl Warburton had xylazine in his system when he died. Pic: Facebook

Read more:
How alarming rise in deaths linked to Tranq made White House act

A post-mortem on the 43-year-old found he had heroin, fentanyl and cocaine in his system, as well as xylazine.

A report in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine said he was “likely to have bought heroin and not known it was laced with xylazine and fentanyl”.

In most cases, the tranquilliser is mixed or “cut” with strong opioids such as heroin or fentanyl by dealers aiming to lower their costs and increase demand.

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Senior author Dr Caroline Copeland, from King’s College London, said: “We now know that xylazine has penetrated the UK’s illicit drug market.

“This is cause for alarm as a much wider population of people who use drugs beyond heroin users will be exposed to its harms.

“We also know that most people who buy heroin will not intend to buy xylazine and this combination increases the risk of overdose.

“Xylazine was designated an ’emerging threat’ to the United States and this public health threat is a growing concern for the UK.”

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Dr Copeland urged the government to introduce “simple” measures to prevent an epidemic of xylazine, including testing strips and making healthcare providers aware of the signs of xylazine use.

She also said pathologists and coroners should request toxicology testing for xylazine in relevant cases to understand its true prevalence.

Despite the results of the study, Manchester-based MANDRAKE, England’s first publicly-funded city centre testing and harm reduction facility, said it hadn’t yet detected the substance in samples from 2022 to the start of 2024.

A government spokesperson said: “We are aware of the threat from xylazine and are determined to protect people from the threat posed by this drug and other illicit synthetic drugs.

“We will not hesitate to act to keep the public safe.

“Following advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), we intend to make xylazine a Class C drug, meaning anyone supplying this substance will face up to 14 years in prison, a fine or both.”


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