New Animal Sedative Adds Complexity to America’s Drug Crisis

As San Francisco witnesses a slight decline in fatal drug overdoses, a potent animal sedative, medetomidine, has surfaced in the illicit drug market across the United States, triggering a surge in overdoses nationwide.

Medetomidine, a synthetic veterinary anesthetic, shares the spotlight with fentanyl as the latest addition to street drugs. Researchers highlight its effects, including “heightened sedation” and “profound bradycardia” (slowed heart rate).

Belonging to the same drug class as xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer known as “tranq,” medetomidine’s emergence parallels xylazine’s appearance in San Francisco overdose cases in late 2022. While xylazine raised concerns initially, it has contributed to only a small fraction of deaths compared to fentanyl. According to NCBI, Of the city’s 258 fatal overdoses recorded this year, xylazine was detected in only 12 cases, whereas fentanyl was present in 187 instances, as per city-data.

Xylazine’s dangers include increased overdose risk, exacerbated withdrawal symptoms, and potential wounds leading to amputation for injectors. While medetomidine may induce similar “harmful and abrupt” withdrawal symptoms, its impact on wound formation remains uncertain, according to Pennsylvania public health officials.

Typically combined with fentanyl, xylazine, or heroin, medetomidine poses challenges for public health officials grappling with high overdose rates and addiction crises in San Francisco and nationwide. While its presence in San Francisco’s drug supply remains unclear, medetomidine has surfaced in the U.S. and Canada, sparking overdose spikes in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.

Alex Kral, an epidemiologist from RTI International, underscores the necessity of a robust drug surveillance system amid an unregulated drug market, emphasizing the unpredictability of drug compositions. as reported by SAN FRANCISCO

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey has raised concerns regarding the monitoring of the city’s illicit drug supply for medetomidine’s presence, stressing the importance of investing in drug supply monitoring during budget deliberations.

The Department of Public Health, in collaboration with city departments and nonprofit partners, is working to monitor new synthetic drugs and prepare treatment options, although medetomidine is not included in its wastewater drug testing program.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner tests for over 200 drugs but does not currently screen for medetomidine, citing resource constraints.

Despite a recent decline in fatal overdoses, concerns persist as synthetic drugs like medetomidine continue to evolve, amplifying challenges for public health officials. Alarming changes in San Francisco’s street drug supply include the presence of fluoro fentanyl since 2022 and “designer benzos” like bromazepam, signifying the ever-changing landscape of drug crises.