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Pennsylvania moves toward criminalizing xylazine



Registered nurse Kathy Lalli treats Ellwood Warren's injuries at the Kensington Hospital wound care outreach van, parked in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. In humans, xylazine can cause breathing and heart rates to drop. It’s also linked to severe skin ulcers and abscesses, which can lead to infections, rotting tissue and amputations. Experts disagree on the exact cause of the wounds, which are much deeper than those seen with other injectable drugs.
Matt Rourke | AP Photo

(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania may soon criminalize possession of xylazine – except for veterinary uses – amid an influx of the animal tranquilizer into the illicit drug supply across the country.

State Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset, said he introduced a proposal to give law enforcement another tool to get people into treatment and protect the agricultural supply chain. The House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee voted 8-6 Wednesday to send the bill to the chamber floor for consideration.

“It’s threading the needle that we need to between the licit and illicit use,” Metzgar said. “Part of the issue that you have is you don’t want someone doing xylazine on the baby-changing station of the Wawa.”

House Bill 1661 would make xylazine possession a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. The bill allows the use of xylazine for veterinary purposes.

Critics, however, say it’s a doomed-to-fail policy.

“I understand the need to address this issue because people are using this illicitly and it is causing problems, but this is not the way to do it,” Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Bellevue, said. “This is not going to have any kind of deterring effect on the people who are using it.”

Kinkead argued that lack of access to xylazine and interventions matter more than incarceration.

“This (bill), while well-intentioned, is just repeating the same thing over and over again, expecting different results,” she said. “It didn't work with meth, it didn't work with cocaine, it didn’t work with heroin, it didn't work with opioids — and it’s not going to work with xylazine … it doesn't have a hope of being successful.”

Xylazine’s role in the illicit drug market has grown in recent years, especially in Philadelphia, which is considered the epicenter of its presence. Also called “tranq,” the drug gets mixed with fentanyl, rendering opioid overdose reversal drugs, like Naloxone, ineffective.

“We have urban and rural drug issues, but we certainly have a rural necessity to keep this drug available,” Metzgar said. “That’s the thing that makes this different.”

Metzgar warned that illicit use could affect agriculture in the commonwealth, too, calling it a “double jeopardy” situation. Veterinarians need xylazine to sedate farm animals for medical care and without it, sick or injured animals would be euthanized instead.

“The amount of food that is and could be impacted by this is massive if we don’t do it right,” Metzgar said. “This thing’s a danger to the users and anyone that rubs up against it in the drug trade — but it’s a huge danger to our food supply if we don’t do it right.”

In April, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy declared fentanyl mixed with xylazine an emerging threat and a number of states have reclassified xylazine as a Schedule III or IV drug. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro temporarily classified xylazine as a Schedule III drug to limit access in April.

In explaining the bill, Metzgar told The Center Square that prohibiting xylazine is necessary because “there’s no way to charge someone” for illegal use otherwise. 

Comparing House Republicans’ perspective on drug addiction to its approach on other issues like energy policy, he said they want an “all-of-the-above policy” that’s “not one-size-fits-all” and offers “all the tools in the toolbox.”

“By charging them, getting them into a treatment program — trying to make them understand how serious this is … we have to give that essential tool out there,” Metzgar said.