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A dangerous new animal sedative is making its way into the illegal drug supply

A dangerous new animal sedative is making its way into the illegal drug supply

Another powerful animal tranquilizer has made its way into street drugs, added to illicit fentanyl and other opioids to prolong a user’s high.

The drug, called medetomidine, is linked to a recent spate of deadly overdoses throughout the Midwest and Northeast. It dramatically slows down breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and decreases activity in the brain and spinal cord. It’s not meant for use in people.

“It’s really concerning, the types of contaminants that we are seeing,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Drugs are becoming deadlier.”

Medetomidine is more potent than a similar animal sedative, xylazine, or “tranq,” that’s become widespread in the U.S. over the past several years.

NPS Discovery, a group that researches illegal drugs, reported finding medetomidine in Maryland as early as July 2022.

It’s clear that the drug is now moving west: It was found during toxicology tests in three people in Michigan who died of drug overdoses, state health officials said Thursday. The cases occurred in separate parts of the state and are not linked.

Last month, health officials in Chicago linked medetomidine to an increase in overdoses — the first time it’d been detected in the city. The sedative was found in combination with opioids such as fentanyl, nitazenes and heroin, as well as with tranq and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax).

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health also reported in May that medetomidine had arrived in the city. It showed up last month in Pittsburgh, too.

People who take the drug can remain sedated for at least three hours, according to Philadelphia’s health alert.

Sporadic reports of the drug are expected to become more widespread as the drug continues to make its way nationwide, said Linda Cottler, director of the National Drug Early Warning System, which monitors emerging drug use trends.

Cottler’s team hasn’t seen rampant signs of medetomidine — yet.

“It’s like a drip, drip, drip until it kind of explodes,” said Cottler. “This is the way drugs travel.”

The rise of medetomidine comes as overdose deaths have fallen slightly. More than 107,000 people died of a drug overdose last year, down from about 111,000 in 2022, according to a recent report.

Medetomidine is particularly concerning because its effects can’t be reversed by drugs like Narcan, also called naloxone. And there are no test strips that can detect it.

“It does seem like the new trend is adding sedatives or tranquilizers and other types of nonopioid drugs to fentanyl, which makes opioid reversal much more complicated,” said Joseph Palamar, an associate professor in the section on tobacco, alcohol and drug use at NYU Langone in New York City, and deputy director of the National Drug Early Warning System. “How are you going to reverse an overdose with naloxone if this keeps you sedated?”

Still, experts continue to urge people to use naloxone in cases of overdose.

“Even though there is not a specific way to reverse medetomidine, we know that it has been found in conjunction with opioids like fentanyl,” Bagdasarian said. “Our primary goal here is to prevent overdose deaths, and as the drug supply becomes deadlier, we have to become more innovative and try to step a step ahead of the problem.”

Erika Edwards

Erika Edwards is a health and medical news writer and reporter for NBC News and “TODAY.”

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