Harm reduction advocates slam Shapiro’s decision to criminalize components of mixed street drugs | Health | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Harm reduction advocates slam Shapiro’s decision to criminalize components of mixed street drugs

click to enlarge Harm reduction advocates slam Shapiro’s decision to criminalize components of mixed street drugs
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen, Original photo: Courtesy office of Gov. Tom Wolf

Local harm reduction advocates are labelling as dangerous and ineffectual Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s move to restrict access to an animal tranquilizer increasingly found mixed with opioids.

“What we've been doing in this country for a very long time is that our first move is, if there's a drug that is perceived as being dangerous, to try to reduce the supply," Alice Bell, an overdose prevention specialist at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which offers harm reduction services to people who use drugs, tells Pittsburgh City Paper. "And the market just shifts to find another source of it, or a somewhat equivalent drug, which is often much more dangerous.” 

On Tues., April 18 Shapiro announced his administration’s plans to add two drugs increasingly found mixed with opioids including xylazine, an animal tranquilizer known to cause “gnarly” wounds, to the state’s list of controlled substances in an effort to “get these drugs out of our communities,” according to a press release.

“Drug dealers have begun to cut opioids like fentanyl, with a drug called xylazine, otherwise known as a tranq,” Shapiro said at a press conference on Tuesday. “It's literally used on large animals like horses and it's never been approved for use with humans … the combination of xylazine and opioids can stop your heart and your lungs entirely and overdose reversal drugs like Naloxone don't work on xylazine because it's not an opiate.”

Tranq has been reported in the local drug supply here in Pittsburgh. Oakland-based Prevention Point notes in a recent Facebook post that when someone overdoses on opioids mixed with tranq, naloxone should still get them breathing again, although they might remain unconscious.

Scheduling a drug as a controlled substance requires manufacturers and distributors to verify that purchasers are licensed practicians permitted to possess the drug and allows law enforcement to impose criminal charges in cases of unauthorized use.

Bell says there’s no reason to think criminalizing unauthorized possession or use of tranq will reduce its presence in Pennsylvania communities.

“There's plenty of other substances that have been scheduled for many, many years, and that does not seem to have reduced their availability in any way, shape, or form,” she says. “It just means that we don't know what's in them.”

Bell recalls that similar pushes to restrict access to prescription opioids over the past 15 years resulted in an “astronomical” rise in overdose deaths.

Although prescription drugs can still cause fatal overdoses, she says, “at least an 80-milligram oxycodone is an 80-milligram oxycodone. You know how strong it is, you know, what's in it. A bag of heroin is—every one of them contains a different amount of heroin and some other conglomeration of substances,” making overdose more likely as people can’t know what exactly they are ingesting.

Bell says that overdose deaths are a public health problem that require public health solutions.

“If we really want to solve the problem of overdose deaths, people need to be able to have a safe supply, they need to know what they're using. They need to have access to evidence-based treatment easily without lots of obstacles and hoops to jump through,” she says. “I mean, the bottom line is that making drug use a crime, and arresting people and putting people in cages for possession of heroin, or fentanyl, or xylazine, has never solved the problem and is never going to solve the problem.”

Shapiro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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