Shapiro signs bill to combat illegal use of xylazine while keeping animal drug legal for vets

Gov. Josh Shapiro has signed a bill that places xylazine, a perilous animal tranquilizer used in illicit drugs, permanently on the list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess without a license or permit.

Xylazine, also known as “tranq,” is increasingly contributing to overdose deaths as drug users consciously or unconsciously take it with other substances, especially the illicit fentanyl. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, xylazine was involved in 760 overdose deaths in 2022, a 32% boost from 2021, when it was linked to 575 fatal overdoses.

The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate earlier this month, follows the Shapiro administration’s short-lived placement of xylazine on the state’s list of Schedule III drugs in April 2023.

Schedule III drugs are drugs with medical uses, available by prescription, and have a moderate potential for abuse. Other Schedule III drugs include Vicodin, ketamine, and anabolic steroids. Illegal possession of such substances is a crime punishable by five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

“By signing this bill today, we are sending a strong message to drug traffickers that we will not allow this poison to continue to be spread in our communities,” Shapiro said in a statement. “This bill helps ensure that xylazine is not diverted from legal sources to drug traffickers while still allowing for important veterinary uses in animals.”

House Bill 1661, introduced by State Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset), protects the use of xylazine in the agricultural industry while allowing law enforcement to prosecute the illegal use or possession of the drug.

“The reason for this legislation was because Somerset County was the site of some of the first recreational use of xylazine,” Metzgar said in a statement. “An individual used it at a baby changing station at a grocery store. “The illegal use of xylazine poses a serious threat to public health, not only to the user but also to innocent bystanders.”

The bill passed 172-29 in the House on May 6 after an amendment by State Senator Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) in the Senate, where it was adopted 49-1.

Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny), who was among 29 House Democrats to oppose the bill, said on the floor that adding xylazine to the list of controlled substances is “the definition of insanity,” noting that making the substance illegal for possession does not prevent its use.

“We do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results,” Kinkead said. “Criminalizing possession of an illegal substance will not stop someone from possessing it, especially when it comes to xylazine, because most people do not know that xylazine is in the drugs they purchase.”

Kinkead noted that given the effects of xylazine on humans, the state should educate the public about the risks of the drug.

The US Food and Drug Administration warned in 2022 that xylazine was not secure for use in humans. It can cause skin ulcers and open sores that lead to tissue breakdown and bacterial infections, and ultimately to amputation, the Shapiro administration said in a statement.

“Our body’s failure to educate people about xylazine before criminalizing it is extremely problematic,” Kinkead said. “Instead we send them to prison.”

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