Powerful animal drug linked to overdoses in the US


Officials are raising alarms about a new “zombie drug,” 100 times more potent than xylazine, which has caused overdose deaths in nine states across the nation.

Medetomidine, a synthetic animal tranquilizer, is the latest street drug to appear alongside fentanyl. It leads to “heightened sedation” and “profound bradycardia,” or slowed heart rate, according to researchers.

Medetomidine has consistently been detected in street drug mixtures containing fentanyl, heroin, and xylazine—another tranquilizer commonly found in street drugs—following a recent series of overdoses in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, as reported by the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CFSRE).

The potent drug can provide users with a stronger high, but high doses can slow the heart to the point of failure, leading to sudden cardiac arrest. Experts also caution that the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, might not be effective against medetomidine overdoses.

“Currently, we lack a drug to reverse an alpha agonist, which these sedatives are. You should provide rescue breathing and call 911 immediately,” said Dr. James Besante, an addiction medicine specialist, to Truth Voices.

Besante noted that while Narcan may not counteract a medetomidine overdose due to its non-opioid nature, it should still be administered during an overdose situation.

The drug is exacerbating the crisis in areas like Kensington in Philadelphia, known for having one of the largest open-air drug markets in the U.S.

Medetomidine was first identified in Maryland at the end of 2022 and has since been reported in at least nine states across the U.S. and Canada.

While dubbed the new “zombie drug” for being a stronger version of xylazine, Besante warns against dehumanizing those affected by it.

“These are individuals with lives and families. Many of the clients I treat daily are incredible people. This drug does not make them ‘zombies.’ They are humans experiencing a chronic disease, and this drug might impair their ability to communicate effectively when intoxicated,” Besante said.

Natasha Zouves
Natasha Zouves
Investigative Correspondent. Natasha was honored as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, and holds a master's from Johns Hopkins in Biotechnology Enterprise & Entrepreneurship. She was previously a news anchor and reporter for KGO-TV (ABC7 News) in San Francisco, California.

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