Inside flesh-eating ‘zombie’ drug Tranq found in vapes as it claims lives of 11 Brits so far

By Staff 9 Min Read

Traces of a powerful flesh-eating tranquiliser that turns users into ‘zombies’ has been found in cocaine and cannabis vapes in the UK, with experts warning about the deadly rise

A killer drug that turns users into lifeless ‘zombies’ is now rife on the streets of Britain, according to new research.

Counterfeit prescription medication, cannabis vapes and cocaine have been found laced with xylazine, known as Tranq, in the UK, a report by Kings College London. The powerful animal tranquilliser, strong enough to knock out an elephant, has in recent times swept through parts of the US, namely Philadelphia, where hordes of addicts have been filmed with their heads hanging, stood still like statues.

The potent drug, which can cause flesh-eating skin sores, has already been linked to 11 deaths in the UK, but experts warn the true figure is much greater. The administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the US, Anne Milgram, said last year that “Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.”

It is used as a cutting agent to make other drugs, such as Valium, cocaine and counterfeit codeine, stronger and to stretch supplies. Xylazine works by blocking adrenergic receptors, which release stress hormones such as dopamine, in the brain and effectively slow down responses.

As a result, stress is relieved, along with pain, and there is a sense of euphoria, similar to opioids. But it can dangerously lower people’s heart rate and breathing, causing suffocation. The theory about the sores is that Tranq restricts blood vessels, blocking oxygenated blood from flowing around the body.

This can stop injuries from healing properly, increasing the chance of infection. The drug was first noticed on British shores when toxicologists at the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (NPSAD) noticed a “strange peak” in test results, which was later identified as xylazine.

Dr Caroline Copeland, senior author from King’s College London (KCL) and director of the NPSAD, said authorities do not know how widespread xylazine is in the UK as it is not included in standard drug screenings. She said: “How big is the UK’s xylazine problem? This could be the tiniest tip of a growing iceberg.”

The UK’s first known Tranq victim is believed to have been Karl Warburton, a 43-year-old factory worker who died in May 2022. The father-of-two’s death was announced in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine from KCL, which said he overdosed on a mix of xylazine, heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.

The KCL study, in the journal Addiction, warns of side effects including airway compromise, and ulcers which can lead to amputation. Researchers said xylazine was a major concern in the US and this “public health threat has now expanded to the United Kingdom”.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the drug is prevalent in seven per cent of overdoses across the US. And those who overdose on xylazine do not respond to any known antidote, according to an FDA warning.

Senior author Dr Caroline Copeland added: “We now know xylazine has penetrated the UK’s illicit drug market. This is cause for alarm as a much wider population of people who use drugs beyond heroin users will be exposed to its harms.”

Its presence in cocaine is particularly alarming for drug users in the UK, which has the highest usage of the drug in Europe. When scientists examined various toxicology, drug testing and drug seizure reports, they found 35 cases of xylazine in England, Scotland and Wales by the end of August 2023.

No cases were found in Northern Ireland. They published data on 16 samples taken from toxicology labs, where the drug was found in 16 people, including 11 who died.

Dr Copeland argued that there are three simple measures the UK can introduce to prevent the epidemic of xylazine use that has emerged in the USA. She explained: “Xylazine test strips should be made available, healthcare providers need to be aware of the signs that chronic skin ulcers are due to ­xylazine use, and pathologists and coroners must specifically request toxicology testing for xylazine in relevant cases to understand the true prevalence of the drug.”

Addict Daniel Cannon, 32, originally from Greenville, North Carolina, told the Mirror US about how his addiction to the drug ruined his life. “My drug addiction has cost me everything,” he said.

“My family, my home, my wife, almost my life. I have lost count of how often it has taken me to death’s door.” The drug has rotted the former chef’s flesh away to the bones in his right arm, exposing his radius and his ulna.

Last summer, xylazine was linked to a highly addictive drug, that was causing horrific skin sores, turning a UK town into a “zombie apocalypse”. One area of Tower Hamlets, East London, had seen an influx of men and women lying on the floor covered in flesh wounds.

Community organisation Coffee Afrik, which works to support drug users, believed users had been given synthetic alternatives to heroin. While the claims are currently unproved, the organisation said it was seeing an insidious outbreak of users with the sores while lying catatonic.

Philadelphia drug worker Kristen Schmidt told the Mirror: “If Britain is to learn anything from Philly, it’s to act quickly.” A Government spokesperson said: “We intend to make xylazine a Class C drug, meaning anyone supplying this substance will face up to 14 years in prison, a fine or both.”

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