(The Center Square) – The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on Wednesday designated fentanyl combined with xylazine as an emerging threat.

Xylazine is a tranquilizer approved by the Food and Drug Administration for veterinary use. It is not approved for people.

“As a physician, I am deeply troubled about the devastating impact of the fentanyl-xylazine combination … I am immensely concerned about what this threat means for the nation,” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta said in a statement. “By declaring xylazine combined with fentanyl as an emerging threat, we are being proactive in our approach to save lives and creating new tools for public health and public safety officials and communities across the nation.”

“I think that it is very important to be proactive here with this statement and to draw attention to this problem,” said Katharine Neill Harris, a fellow in drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Now we just kind of have to see what the actual policies will be that follow this declaration.”

The Office of National Drug Control Policy said it was putting together an interagency working group to create a national response plan. The response will include work on xylazine testing, treatment, strategies to reduce the illicit supply of xylazine, and research, according to the White House.

Limiting the supply of xylazine will be a challenge, Harris said.

“Reducing the supply is unlikely to be effective,” she said. “Once the drug starts making its way through the drug supply, any kind of eradication efforts tend to just not really work.”

Providing ways to test for xylazine could help, Harris said.

“There are xylazine test strips that just became commercially available and if we can push those out into communities now, we can help people avoid the drug,” she said.

Most drug users don’t want xylazine.

She said if drug users can test for xylazine, they could reduce the supply of it in illicit drugs.

“If demand for this drug goes down and users are saying ‘we’re not going to buy this’ or ‘we don’t want this’ that can potentially affect supply more than any kind of drug enforcement efforts,” she said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about a sharp increase in trafficking of fentanyl mixed with xylazine. The federal agency said xylazine and fentanyl mixtures had been seized in 48 of 50 states. It also noted that the DEA Laboratory System reported that in 2022 about 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine. DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement at the time that “xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.”

U.S. officials reported 107,735 overdose deaths between August 2021 and August 2022 from drug poisonings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 66% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

National overdose death numbers have flattened or decreased for seven consecutive months, however, “xylazine is complicating efforts to reverse opioid overdoses with naloxone and threatens progress being made to save lives and address the opioid crisis,” according to a statement from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Investigative Reporter

Brett Rowland is an award-winning journalist who has worked as an editor and reporter in newsrooms in Illinois and Wisconsin. He is an investigative reporter for The Center Square.