Dangerous animal tranquilizer detected in Chicago street drugs, prompting statewide health warnings

The medical community in Chicago and across the state are on alert for yet another dangerous contaminant that's being added to the street drug supply. 

Recently, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Department of Public Health sent out warnings regarding medetomidine being found mixed in with other drugs. 

"Live4Lali" is a harm reduction provider in the Chicago area. Its staff travels regularly throughout the suburbs, handing out drug test strips as part of its outreach. 

"We go through thousands a month, so people are using them, which is good. Does that stop people from using? Probably not. At least people can be informed," said Executive Director of Live for Lali, Laura Fry. 

Fry said it's unclear if there is a test strip to detect the latest adulterant being added to the street drug supply. 

"There is not to my knowledge. We currently give out fentanyl, xylazine and benzodiazepine test strips, so people can test their supply," said Fry.

According to these alerts sent out by the state and Chicago's Public Health Departments, medetomidine is now working its way into the illegal drug supply in Illinois. 

"It's scary. It's a scary world out there for our friends who use drugs," said Fry. 

Medetomidine is an animal tranquilizer similar to another one already being found in street drugs across the country – xylazine. 

The city's alert stated, "Multiple drug samples collected from the West Side last month tested positive for elevated levels of medetomidine."

The warning from the Illinois Public Health Department said it was notified that "multiple individuals had presented at four different hospitals in Cook County with symptoms of opioid toxicity." 

According to IDPH's alert, medetomidine has only been found in Cook County so far. But, it's been popping up sporadically across the country for the last two years. 

"I'm very concerned about individuals mixing medetomidine into any drug it's not supposed to be mixed with, particularly illicit drugs on the street," said Dr. Amber Hopkins, the national director of anesthesia for Thrive Pet Healthcare. 

"This medication is not labeled for use in humans because it hasn't been studied. That specific drug has not been evaluated in humans and it does have fairly significant side effects," said Hopkins. 

Primarily used to sedate small animals, Hopkins said those side effects could include decreased heart rate and blood flow. 

"A normal (heart) beat is about 60 per minute and it's going down into the 20s," said Dr. Sara Beyer, the regional medication safety director for Loyola Medicine. 

She said that's how low a person's heart rate could drop if they've ingested a street drug mixed with medetomidine. 

Beyer added that having a heartbeat in the 20s could lead to brain damage or death. 

"What the physicians are finding is there no reversal agent for this currently in humans. So, what the physicians are treating is they're treating for respiratory depression," said Beyer. 

The alert from the state's public health department also noted patients "were not responding to naloxone" when doctors administered it. 

"Whenever they're using extremely high amounts of naxolone and it's not treating the patients, that's when they get concerned that medications can be laced with other things," Beyer said. 

Beyer added that doctors were giving three to four times the normal dose of naloxone and not seeing any response. 

She also said high amounts of naloxone will not harm the body. 

Compared to xylazine, medetomidine does not exacerbate skin wounds but is considered to be more potent. 

According to the Chicago Public Health Department's alert, it's been found combined with several drugs, including fentanyl, heroin, xylazine and alprazolam.