Drug Users Are Losing Their Fingers and Toes After Shooting ‘Tranq Dope’

Another ghastly example of the harm done by making recreational drugs illegal.  The illegality is the problem.  If the preferred drugs were legally available from pharmacies at pharmaceuitical levels of purity, none of this would happen.  

People often have unsatisfying lives.  It is perfectly reasonable in such cases to seek a pharmaceutial "high".  I have never used any recreational drugs but I have never had any need of them to lead a good life.  Not everyone is so lucky

Bill’s hands are so disfigured that he can no longer fit gloves over them. 

About two months ago, his right ring finger was amputated. In a matter of weeks, he could lose the middle finger on his left hand, which was swollen with a large, maroon-colored sore covering the knuckle when VICE News met him on a recent morning in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. 

The lesions are markers of a drug Bill said he never intended to consume. Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer known on the street as “tranq” or “tranq dope,” has infiltrated Philly’s illicit opioid supply. The 59-year-old, who did not share his last name with VICE News, shivered as he hunted for mittens at an outreach event for drug users in Kensington. 

“Boy, this is angry,” said a nurse who volunteers with the harm reduction group Savage Sisters, while examining a wound on one of Bill’s fingers at a pop-up wound care clinic at Kensington’s McPherson Park, known locally as Needle Park because of its open-air drug use. 

A nurse helps treat a man's wounds in Philly. 

Bill said he hates the sedative effect of xylazine—which is most commonly mixed with fentanyl—because it knocks him out for hours at a time; he also believes it’s causing sores to break out all over his body. 

“I never shoot up in my hands, but I get abscesses in my knuckles, in the tops of my fingers,” Bill said. “[They’re] caused by whatever they’re putting in the drugs.”

VICE News spent a week in Philadelphia, where the drug was detected in less than 2 percent of fatal opioid overdoses between 2010 and 2015—but jumped up to 31 percent in 2019. 

Repeated tranq use is believed to be causing wounds on users’ bodies, and like Bill’s, they’re not limited to injection sites but are showing on people’s hands and legs, in some cases resulting in amputations. The problem is so bad that Philadelphia, ground zero for tranq in the U.S., is looking to hire a wound care specialist and a field nurse to deal specifically with tranq-related lesions. Drug users and harm reduction advocates said tranq is also creating a whole new kind of physical dependence—with people passing out for hours at a time and waking up craving more. 

“Philly’s going under from tranq.”

While there are some strides being made to help people within the city, the issue has largely flown under the radar, even as tranq spreads to other parts of the U.S., including Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

“It’s killing us,” said Sam Brennan, 28, a tranq user who is living in a shelter in Kensington. She said conditions in the neighborhood, where residents contend with extreme poverty and drugs are sold openly (samples are sometimes given out for free), have deteriorated with the proliferation of tranq. 

“It’s something I’ve never seen before anywhere else. People all over the place, sticking needles anywhere they possibly can, passed out. Philly’s going under from tranq.” 

Tranq first showed up in medical examiners’ reports in Philadelphia in 2006, according to Jen Shinefeld, a field epidemiologist with the city who focuses on substance use. But in the past two years, its reach has exploded. Of the 200 samples of dope (primarily fentanyl) the city has tested since September 2020, all of them have come back with tranq in them, Shinefeld said. A study published recently in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that in 10 jurisdictions, xylazine’s prevalence skyrocketed from 0.36 percent of overdose deaths in 2015 to 6.7 percent in 2020.

The dosing in the street supply varies wildly, Shinefeld said, with some batches containing barely any opioids and heavily skewed toward tranq. 


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