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Austin Talks | New drug worsening Chicago’s opioid overdose crisis

Local public health officials say a new illicit drug is helping drive a record number of opioid overdose deaths in Chicago. And unlike the drug fentanyl, the effects of xylazine – an animal tranquilizer – can’t be reversed with Narcan.

Narcan, a medicine that anyone can give to reverse an overdose, should still be used, said Dr. Wilnise Jasmine of the Chicago Department of Public Health. She discussed the danger of xylazine and other drugs during this month’s meeting of the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force.

And it’s not just xylazine that is worrying public health officials. They’re also tracking synthetically made opioids like fentanyl, which can be far more potent than heroin, Jasmin said.

The addition of xylazine could be the start of a trend since suppliers are constantly changing what they put into their drugs, said Taylor Wood, the drug checking technician at the Chicago Recovery Alliance.

“We see at times anywhere from eight to 14 different substances in dope,” Wood said.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office found 236 xylazine-associated deaths over the course of five years with the numbers increasing from January 2017 to October 2021.

There have been over 30 deaths related to xylazine in 2022 so far, said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner.

Nationally, a study published last month in Drug and Alcohol Dependence reported an increase in xylazine overdose deaths from 0.36% in 2015 to 6.7% in 2020.

In humans, xylazine causes slowed breathing and lowered blood pressure, making deadly overdoses more likely. It’s being added to illegal drugs to lengthen the euphoric effects and extend the fentanyl supply.

Chicago was hit hard with fentanyl overdoses in 2021. About 90% of all opioid deaths included fentanyl, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The South Austin neighborhood reported the second highest number of overdose deaths in the city with 77 last year.

Cook County found 99.2% of xylazine deaths included fentanyl, an opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. Public health officials have been pushing to make Narcan available to everyday Chicagoans.

Jasmin, the medical director for the city’s Behavioral Health Bureau, said there are free Narcan nasal spray boxes in 27 public libraries – including all three Austin branches. And the public health department is working to expand to all 80 locations. Free public vending machines that contain fentanyl test strips and Narcan nasal spray are expected to be available some time this year.

Wood hopes Chicago will follow the lead of New York City, which has designated areas where people with addictions can safely inject drugs under supervision.

“I think that would kind of curb a lot of the detriment that we’re seeing happening to people, and then we can just focus on the mental health aspects,” Wood said. “Stop worrying about the overdoses and the physical harm, and we can just get to the root of the issue.”

The city has just launched a hotline for anyone looking for treatment; the MAR NOW program’s number is (833) 234-6343.

Wood stressed the importance of protecting people struggling with addiction.

“What we really need, I think, is safe supply.”

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