NEW YORK -- There's a dangerous new drug quickly becoming more prevalent in New York.
CBS New York investigative reporter Tim McNicholas dug deeper into how it's quickly spreading, and how police are trying to combat a drug that's technically still legal.
The Drug Enforcement Administration's New York Division says it has seen an increase of more than 580% over the last few years. Xylazine is being mixed in with fentanyl and other drugs, causing large flesh wounds and deadly overdoses.
It's a sedative -- a horse tranquilizer -- not an opioid. That means anti-overdose drugs like naloxone don't work on xylazine or, as it's called on the street, "Tranq."
It's another example of an ingredient that makes it cheaper for the dealer, but more dangerous for the user.
On a sunny day near Washington Square Park, a team working out of a van tried to save people from their darkest days.
"This will tell you the presence of xylazine," said Ashley Lynch of the Alliance for Positive Change.
Lynch was handing out xylazine test kits, so drug users could at least know whether their drug supply contained a sedative that's causing severe tissue damage.
"The most alarming things we've seen are the wounds. People have these gaping wounds on their bodies that can go as deep as the muscle. You can almost see the bone, and it just eats away at the flesh," Lynch said.
The federal DEA is testing, too, but in a different way. The agency tests narcotics seized in drug busts like a recent one, in which investigators found a drug packaging mill in the Bronx.
In an email to CBS New York, the DEA's New York Division said about 15% of those tests so far this year showed xylazine.
And since the start of 2019, the DEA says the number of drug seizures containing xylazine has increased 586% in New York.
"And let's be very clear: This is a choice made by the street-level dealer. This is a dealer's choice to mix in additives like xylazine, to continue to addict young people, the most vulnerable," said Frank A. Tarentino III, special agent in charge of the DEA New York Division.
Just a few months ago in the Bronx, the DEA, NYPD and New York State Police said they discovered fentanyl and heroin mixed with xylazine at another drug-packaging mill. However, the suspects only faced charges for the fentanyl and heroin -- not the xylazine.
"Right now, there's no penalty whatsoever because it's not illegal to possess," said Bridget Brennan, New York City's special narcotics prosecutor.
Brennan says more regulation could help law enforcement nail down where xylazine is coming from.
"There's no tracking of it as there would be if it was on the list of controlled substances, the federal list of controlled substances," Brennan said.
When asked if she thinks it should be on that list, Brennan said, "Yeah. I think given the evidence that we have right now, the escalating deaths, the way people are suffering with wounds to the body, I think it's time."
"It's always trying to adapt to the changes that the traffickers and the cartels are utilizing to further their business," Tarentino added.
The DEA told CBS New York it is working with the Food and Drug Administration to get xylazine on the list of controlled substances as soon as possible. State lawmakers are also looking into a bill that would add it to New York's controlled substance list.
That could mean stronger penalties for dealers mixing in xylazine.
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