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‘It’s kind of Russian Roulette’: How an animal tranquilizer is adding new risks to street drugs in New Hampshire
By Paul Cuno-BoothJanuary 20, 2023
Andrew Warner holding some of the supplies he gives out as part of his harm reduction work. Warner, then an outreach worker for the treatment provider Better Life Partners, is now Manchester’s director of overdose prevention. (Paul Cuno-Booth/NHPR)
Nate Weddle has struggled with heroin addiction for years. He first came to Manchester, N.H., about four years ago to live in a sober house, and did well there. But moving out on his own was harder than he thought. Since then, he’s gone back and forth between relapse and recovery.
“I’m typically proud to be in recovery,” he said. “But unfortunately I’m on the flip side of it now.”
Lately, he’s noticed that some heroin has an unusual effect on him. It’ll knock him out immediately, and he won’t wake up for hours. Weddle, who is 33, has been living on the street, where passing out suddenly can be dangerous. He’s woken up to find his stuff stolen.
Strange skin wounds have also appeared on his hand and arm, in places he wasn’t injecting. The round, scabby sores looked almost like cigarette burns.
“And over time, they actually grew in size and got bigger,” he said.
Health workers are seeing similar symptoms in people across New Hampshire, and they suspect the cause is a substance called xylazine — an animal tranquilizer that’s increasingly finding its way into street drugs across the country. Analysts at New Hampshire’s state crime lab estimate they’re finding it in about 15% of the fentanyl they test.
Sometimes called “tranq dope,” xylazine-laced fentanyl is creating new hazards for people who use drugs.
It’s the latest turn in a rapidly changing drug supply, in which fentanyl is turning up in everything from cocaine to fake pills, meth use has spiked and any of those substances could be cut with unknown additives. Harm reduction workers in New Hampshire say the state could be doing more to warn people about those kinds of risks.
Ryan Fowler, a harm reduction coordinator with the Lebanon-based HIV/HCV Resource Center, said the unpredictability makes things even riskier for people using already dangerous drugs. Most of the time, they just don’t know what they’re getting.
“It’s kind of Russian Roulette with the drug supply that’s out there,” he said.