There’s a new drug in town called xylazine. The Times reported on it last week and, to be fair, it was a fine example of quality journalism. Only joking – they twisted the truth like a pretzel. The article was garnished with inaccuracies and entirely bereft of context or nuance. “A flesh-eating ‘zombie’ drug has killed in Britain,” warned the headline. Is this true? Should we be terrified?
Well, firstly, zombies are fictional characters in films that have died, been supernaturally reanimated and are typically hobbling towards someone in anapocalyptic scene. Obviously, no drug can turn a human into a fictional character – with the possible exception of a pill turning you into Danny Dyer in Human Traffic. The mere suggestion dehumanises drug users, as the mainstream media always does, when it decides to call a whole range of substances “zombie drugs” to generate more clicks and whip up hysteria.
There has been a drug-related death, though: a 43-year-old man called Karl Warburton from the West Midlands who tragically passed away last May. But his death wasn’t directly caused by xylazine, as The Times, The Mirror and Daily Mail inaccurately reported last week. To help me understand what really happened to Warburton, and to find out what xylazine is, I spoke to Dr Judith Yates. When it comes to drug trends, she knows what’s going on well before official drug statistics are published.
Dr Yates, a retired GP who worked in the drug and alcohol field for 35 years, has spent the last 12 years going into the coroner’s office in the capacity of a data collector. “I look through all the inquest data and hold the database for everybody who has died of a drug overdose in Birmingham,” she told THE FACE last week. “It’s a means of looking for ways to prevent future deaths.”
I asked her about xylazine. “Certainly The Times [article] is inaccurate,” she said. “The headline, ‘flesh-eating zombies’ doesn’t help us to understand anything about xylazine.” She added: “It’s implying that this is the cause of death when the actual death certificate for this chap found that heroin, fentanyl and cocaine were the main causes of death. Xylazine was in the ‘section two’, present at the time, contributing to the death but not causing it directly.”
“They use that zombie word to label lots of new drugs that come along,” Dr Yates says. “So-called ‘monkey dust’ is now called a zombie drug and we had a couple of years of synthetic cannabinoids being called zombie drugs. It’s unhelpful, it demonises people who are using these drugs. I imagine this young man didn’t know that he’d taken xylazine but it implies that he knew and almost kind of makes it his fault somehow.”
So, what exactly is xylazine? “It’s an anaesthetic, sedative animal tranquilliser which is used by vets in animals, it’s not normally used in humans,” Dr Yates says. “Although similar medications are used in humans to lower blood pressure.”
So why are drug manufacturers, traffickers and wholesalers adding this drug to their traditional offerings?
“In the US, where it has been going for a couple of years, xylazine has been added to benzos [benzodiazepines, a family of sedative drugs including Valium and Xanax often used to treat anxiety] and opioids [a family of drugs, including morphine, heroin and fentanyl, often used to relieve pain] to prolong their effects.”
“The person who’s using them [drugs with xylazine added] has a longer lasting period of sedation because it’s longer acting than most of the benzos that they are using. And initially, I don’t think the people who are making it, the chemists or whoever, mentioned it or advertised it, but once it’s been there for a while, some of the people who are using it come to like that effect. So in America it’s reported that some people are now looking for it.”
While adding xylazine to downers like benzos or opioids might prolong the high, it doesn’t come without additional risks. “In America, it’s often being injected,” Dr Yates told me. “But it’s not actually a very good thing to inject because it causes vasoconstriction [a narrowing of blood vessels] which causes abscesses and ulcers around the area that you’ve injected.” This is why The Times feels like it has a licence to paint it as a “flesh-eating” drug. “It’s not eating you,” Dr Yates said, laughing at the absurdity of the claim that a drug can “eat” a user’s flesh. “But it does make it hard for your body to heal.”
In the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that it had “seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States” since 2021. But how prevalent is it in the British drug supply right now? It takes a while for the official statistics to be published, but there are some indications that it has entered the supply in several areas in the UK. One way we can see this is in the data published by WEDINOS, a harm reduction outfit that will test any drugs that you post to them. “The first one was in June last year, two THC vapes that contained xylazine,” Dr Yates explains.
Since then, a total of nine substances sent into WEDINOS have tested positive for xylazine. “After the THC vapes, they were all in benzos – Xanax, temazepam, diazepam – and last month a codeine tablet [an opioid],” she adds. This wasn’t in one area, the samples were sent in from all around the country. The available evidence suggests that it is doing the rounds so, if you’re a casual drug user, you should be aware of that.
Much like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, when a substance is illegal, the supply trade is not bound by quality control issues and those who sell it only have only one motive: profit. They’ll sometimes contaminate a drug with other substances for financial reasons. Legalising drugs is the only way to avoid this, and since that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon, it is down to you to deal with quality control yourself. This means: test, test, test.
It doesn’t matter where you get your drugs from – the dark web, Telegram channels, a dial-a-dealer, a guy in a pub toilet or your best friend – always be aware that you might not be buying what you intended to. Even if the dealer is your best mate and wouldn’t willingly put you at risk, unless they are testing their gear, they probably don’t really know what they’re getting themselves. It’s only the manufacturers or someone who gets their drugs tested who are in the know. So, I’d advise getting everything tested yourself; testing is like using a condom – you can still have all the fun while minimising potential risks as much as possible.