Over the past six months, national and local media have flooded the news cycle with stories about the “horrors” of xylazine, a non-opioid animal tranquilizer increasingly found mixed with fentanyl, sometimes to deadly effect. Outlets including the New York Times and CNN have trafficked in graphic portrayals of xylazine use, even calling it “the zombie drug,” a term advocates say fuels stigma and punitive measures against people who use drugs.
Indeed, amid this wave of sensationalized coverage and broader concerns that xylazine is driving up overdose rates nationwide, lawmakers have responded by rushing to criminalize possession of the drug. But critics fear the current push against xylazine is repeating the cycle that led to its rise.
Four states, Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, have already added xylazine to their lists of controlled substances. Proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate would criminalize some xylazine possession at the federal level and increase funding for law enforcement to “crack down on its spread,” in the words of one of the bill’s sponsors.
This official response to xylazine mirrors tactics that have been used for decades in campaigns against emerging “drugs of concern.”
Most recently, in 2018, the Trump administration used its emergency authority to move many fentanyl-related substances into Schedule I. The policy triggered harsh punishments for minor possession—even in cases in which someone does not know their drugs contain fentanyl. The resulting penalties have disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities. In 2021, roughly 40 percent of those arrested for fentanyl possession were Black, and around 40 percent were Latino.
While officials claimed emergency scheduling was necessary to combat fentanyl overdoses, deaths have only continued to skyrocket in the years since, reaching record highs as recently as 2021.
In light of this track record, harm reduction advocates say the recent approach to xylazine is little more than a symptom of the latest “drug panic,” likely to worsen the overdose crisis and deepen the inequities of drug arrests and incarceration.
Instead, some are advocating for a strategy known as “safe supply,” which involves providing people who use drugs with access to substances of regulated contents and potency.
Safe supply may seem like a foreign concept in the U.S., where a half-century-long war on drugs has unsuccessfully pushed abstinence. But supporters argue that protecting people against unknowingly using adulterated drugs is a key step in combating overdoses related to xylazine and other additives.
Like other harm reduction tactics, safe supply “is fundamentally about saving lives,” said Melanie Beddis, the programs director at Savage Sisters Recovery, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that serves people who are in recovery or using drugs.
She noted that the approach relies on a basic concept widely accepted in other drug use contexts.
“Safe supply already exists in bars,” Beddis told The Appeal. “People are able to go into a place, order what they want, and know the ingredients and what they’re drinking.”