SEATTLE - If you ever wondered what could make fentanyl any worse, here’s your answer: Tranq – now one of the fastest-spreading drugs in America – FOX 13’s The Spotlight has confirmed it’s already turned up in fatal overdoses around the Seattle area.
Tranq users get turned into real-life zombies, right down to loss of basic mental function and the rotting flesh. Some of the most chilling accounts of Tranq’s impact come from those most familiar with the drug: front line mental health professionals, addiction services, and the users themselves.
Rochelle Long is a mental health professional embedded with the Marysville Police Department. In January, she put colleagues and clinics on notice to brace themselves for the full-on arrival of Tranq, warning that it hooks users with a new and powerful kind of high. "They start out dancing and they seem happy and they're just having fun and then immediately zombie like trance, like staring through you as if like a horror film," Long says.
What it can do to the human body is equally hard to believe. Wounds caused by Xylazine kill the skin and underlying tissue, turning the area black and hard. If untreated, it can lead to amputation.
Long saw it happen to a user first-hand. "He didn't have a flesh eating disorder, he didn't have an abscess, and he doesn't know how his finger went missing," Long recalled. "He said it was just miraculously gone."
Tranq’s base ingredient is Xylazine, a tranquilizer for large animals, obtained either illicitly through local vet suppliers or from overseas sources like China in powder form to bulk up fentanyl; Tranq, also known in some circles as ‘fetti powder’ and ‘Tranq Dope,’ is what you get when you mix xylazine with fentanyl.
The latest data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows tranq is spreading almost as fast as fentanyl did, and following much of the same path, "beginning with white powder heroin markets in the Northeast, before spreading to the South, and then working its way into drug markets westward."
In the West region, the DEA reports forensic lab identifications of xylazine were up 112% percent in 2021 – the latest year for which numbers are available. The report also says "xylazine-positive fatal overdoses … experienced a significant jump from 2020 to 2021" – up 1,127% in the South region, up 750% in the West.
The Spotlight has learned there have been at least 12 xylazine-positive overdoses around the Puget Sound region, 9 in King County, three in Snohomish County, though agencies we spoke with say they have not tested widely for xylazine in autopsies.
Tranq has already ravaged multiple cities on the East Coast. Sarah Laurel is the founder of the 'Savage Sisters' outreach program in Philadelphia. In an interview with The Spotlight, she said Tranq is everywhere now: "It took us about two years for it to dominate and take over our supply, whereas in Boston for instance, it was almost non-existent in July and August, it is now in 70% of their supply."
Sarah says she and her team are treating Tranq addicts every day, doing their best with bandages, compassion, and Narcan. But Narcan’s effectiveness is limited: because Tranq is a sedative and not an opioid, it resists most opioid overdose remedies. "It's pretty terrifying, largely because we don't know much about it and we don't have a reversal drug," Laurel says. "We have to begin testing why it is causing these wounds within humans."
Washington like most states is not widely testing for xylazine. Because of that, fentanyl users are at risk of getting hooked on Tranq without even knowing they're taking it. The lack of awareness is what scares Mike Kersey of Courage to Change, an addiction recovery service in Everett, who says Tranq use there is on the rise. "I heard about it from a couple of addicts," Kersey explained. "One of them I got into detox said they had been using fetti powder and it was so much stronger."
For now, it's a race against time with Kersey trying to reach users and get them help before Tranq gets to them first; people like Nick Mackey who just completed a 28-day treatment program.
The Spotlight caught up to Nick after he graduated and on his way to transitional housing, proud of his achievement but worried for those who haven’t taken the first step toward sobriety. Nick has never tried Tranq, but he knows enough about fentanyl to understand that anything that makes it more powerful, will make it more deadly. "Fentanyl has taken a lot of people of people, you mix it with that it’s going to be completely overpowering," Nick said. "I’m worried about it."