Melanie Cox’s mammoth sore had gotten worse – much worse.
It started as a hot, puffy spot between her thumb and index finger, where she’d been injecting heroin for nearly two decades.
But soon, the lesion bloated into a grotesque, brownish-green slug.
It wasn’t the heroin that had rotted Cox’s flesh away.
It was the animal sedative known as “tranq,” which has infected every facet of the drug game and left healthcare workers bewildered and addicts reeling from its shocking side effects.
“You could put my hand to your lips and feel the heat emanating,” the 51-year-old mother of three told The Post last week in Asbury Park as she dabbed at the gauzy wound. “It was eating my hand away under the skin.”
More and more similarly sickening stories are being reported across the country as xylazine — more commonly known by its street name “tranq” – slithers its way into bags of heroin, cocaine, and meth to strike unsuspecting users who don’t know that they’re snorting, shooting and smoking a consciousness-erasing, flesh-rotting drug.
A cheap cutting agent, xylazine has also worked its way into oft-abused pills like Xanax or other sedatives and painkillers, meaning that users who think they’re doing one drug are probably doing tranq also – whether they want to or not.
The so-called zombie drug’s omnipresence shocked the staff at the Visiting Nurse Association Health Group in Asbury Park, the first outfit in New Jersey to get tranq test strips about three months ago.
“Every single client shows [tranq] in their urine,” case manager Chad Harlan told The Post. “If they’re using drugs – they’re using tranq.”
The flesh-eating lesions aren’t the worst part – deaths linked to tranq have spiked in recent years.
In 2021, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving xylazine was 35 times higher than it was just three years earlier, according to a June report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only about 102 people died after a tranq-related overdose in 2018, the CDC said. That number rose to 627 in 2019 — and by 2021, it had reached 3,468, according to the report.
Tranq was most frequently combined with fentanyl to create an epically deadly combination that the US Drug Enforcement Administration said puts users “at a higher risk of suffering a fatal drug poisoning.”
The drug can cause “severe sedation, low blood pressure and is also in and of itself addictive,” according to Dr. Ian Wittman, chief of service for the emergency department at NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn.
It hits users like a pipe to the head, leaving them in a state of lumbering semi-consciousness. Their odd contortions — combined with tranq’s tendency to rot the skin — have led many to call it the “zombie drug.”
Tranq holds other hidden dangers, too.
It’s not an opioid, so it doesn’t respond to naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug commonly known by its brand name Narcan. That means if someone overdoses, friends and family can’t revive them, said Lee McCully, a harm reductionist who also works with the nurse association in Asbury.
Tranq can also cause psychosis — a stark departure from drugs like heroin or fentanyl that can exacerbate existing mental illnesses, but won’t cause it on their own, McCully said.
“They’re dropping like flies and losing their minds,” McCully recently told The Post.
“They think they have GPS in their bodies, they have voices in their heads, they think there are cameras everywhere,” she continued. “More than one person has told us they were going to jump in front of a car or the train because they thought they were being followed and were going to be killed by the FBI or CIA.”
Kaitlyn Fiumenero, a 35-year-old certified nursing assistant, knows all too well how tranq twists reality for those who indulge in it.
The mother-of-two has been addicted to crack cocaine for nearly two years and often smokes tranq as a consequence.
“It’s very hard – almost impossible – to get crack without tranq,” she told The Post.
Two months ago, she fell into a stupor after smoking tranq in Asbury Park. She woke up in a New York City hospital bed.
“I was walking around like a zombie,” Fiumenero said. “I got on the wrong bus. I have no idea how I got there, but I ended up in New York City … without any shoes on yelling, ‘Where is my husband?’ I don’t remember taking my shoes off. I was just running, running, running.”
Eventually, a cop brought her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis.
“It doesn’t make you feel good,” she said. “I definitely don’t want tranq, but I’m a crack addict so I need to use.”
Wittman, the NYU doctor, admitted that public health officials aren’t quite sure how to deal with the emerging epidemic.
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“The public health and emergency medicine communities are still learning how best to address this new threat,” Wittman said in an email.
But as they struggle, tranq continues to infiltrate the drug market and fatalities climb.
Philadelphia is the acknowledged epicenter of the crisis, with the city reporting that more than 90% of dope samples tested in 2021 had xylazine in them.
Recent footage of the city’s Kensington neighborhood – and its rows of passed-out, slumped-over zombies – shocked the public.
Users frequently become targets for robbers when they get knocked into a zombie-like state by the drug.
That’s what happened to Benjamin Cardilla, a 39-year-old man who said he was robbed of everything he owns — including his mother’s ashes — during a recent tranq-induced stupor.
“This s–t has taken everything from me – I have ruined my life,” said Cardilla, who relapsed a few weeks ago after spending a year clean, and already has gotten sores between his fingers.
“I lost everything, man,” a rueful Cardilla told The Post. “I lost my mother’s ashes, dude. My mother’s ashes.”
At home in the Big Apple, tranq was at least partly responsible for about 10% to 20% of the city’s 2,688 overdose deaths in 2021, according to a report from the city’s special narcotics prosecutor’s office.
The Bronx has been particularly hard hit by the evil cocktail – more residents of the city’s northernmost borough died in 2022 from tranq-related overdoses than anywhere else in New York, the report said.
“We’re certainly seeing a lot more of it,” Bridget Brennan, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, told The Post in an interview.
Other places are suffering just as dearly.
Tranq has flooded Florida’s Orange County and caused 150 overdoses and nine fatalities in the last 18 months, officials there said last month.
And it’s reached as far as California, popping up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and San Joaquin counties, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
What is Tranq?
Tranq is a powerful veterinary tranquilizer known in medical circles as xylazine.
Although never approved for human use, the drug has somehow found its way into the nation’s illicit drug supply as a cutting agent, wreaking havoc on people suffering from addiction.
Tranq – which is often found blended with fentanyl – can cause flesh-eating lesions and psychosis. It also knocks its victims into a lumbering state of semi-consciousness, which can lead to robberies and other forms of street crime.
Tranq’s use is expanding quickly as it rifles from coast to coast.
In 2021, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving xylazine was 35 times higher than it was just three years earlier, according to a June report from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rising death toll prompted the White House to designate the fentanyl/xylazine blend an “emerging threat,” which means the federal government will be required to come up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with it, the report said.
Although 2022’s overdose numbers aren’t out yet, Brennan said New York City officials are expecting a record number of overdose deaths – maybe as much as 10% more than the previous year.
Drug dealers’ habit of mixing tranq with fentanyl has likely had a hand in that, she said.
“I do think xylazine is a factor in the deaths,” Brennan said. “Mixing xylazine and fentanyl is extremely dangerous because they both have a sedating effect. So you’re getting a double-whammy.”
Brennan wants state and federal lawmakers to get a handle on tranq – which isn’t considered a controlled dangerous substance – through usage and distribution restrictions.
Until then, people need to realize how dangerous the drug supply is right now – no matter which illicit product they’re using.
“It would be a mistake to think that somehow they have control over what they’re receiving,” Brennan said.
“It’s very risky, and they need to protect themselves,” she added. “It could be a deadly mistake.”