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The crisis that’s killing America: ‘Zombie’ drug hitting the streets, destroying communities

Law enforcement officials are fighting a new drug being added to the illegal drug supply in Michigan. It’s being transported across the nation and making the deadliest drug threat the United States has ever seen even deadlier.

The drug is Xylazine. It’s a powerful animal tranquilizer that is now helping to fuel overdose deaths that have reached record-setting levels.

Steve Verdow, the acting special agent in charge of DEA Michigan, told 9&10′s Christina Aguayo that Xylazine is already in Michigan.


“It’s here and, unfortunately, it’s having a devastating effect on this country,” he said.

The latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in the 12-month period ending in September 2023, more than 111,000 people died by overdose. Nearly 3,100 of those deaths occurred in Michigan, and the majority involved opioids like Fentanyl.

Verdow said that the DEA Michigan is seizing 150 to 200 pounds of Fentanyl every two years, which is enough to potentially kill more than 11 million people. Even so, Verdow believes the DEA Michigan is only seizing about half of what’s actually coming into the state,

“I would love to say, hey, we’re getting 75% of what’s coming in, but I’m a realist,” he said.


Recently, the number of overdose deaths involving Xylazine - otherwise known as The Tranq drug - has spiked. In fact, the CDC is reporting a 276% jump between 2019 and 2022.

DEA Michigan public information officer Brian McNeal said that Xylazine is not illegal, and even though a license is required to purchase the animal tranquillizer, people are finding work-arounds, and using it in tandem with other deadly drugs.

“This drug is being mixed with Fentanyl and it stretches your Fentanyl supply. It stretches out the high for the end user. And so you’re taking a cheap drug like Fentanyl, and you’re mixing it with an even cheaper drug, like Xylazine, and you’re causing massive chaos,” McNeal said.

The evidence of Xylazine’s effect is being seen in videos popping up across the nation. People are walking around the streets, half conscious, with bent backs and moving in slow motion.


It also causes necrosis - the rotting of human flesh - which can lead to amputation. This is how it got its street name - the Zombie Drug.

“It creates wounds in the user, so a lot of times if you have these wounds and you’re going to seek treatment, you’re going to be turned away from the facility,” McNeal said, “because you’ve got these massive wounds that they’re not equipped to deal with. You have to first go to the hospital, so it creates a barrier for someone to seek treatment.”

What makes Xylazine even more dangerous, according to McNeal, is that it is not an opioid, so Narcan won’t work.

“Anyone who’s overdosing from Fentanyl and Xylene is not going to be responsive to Naloxone or Narcan. So you’re getting hit with this Narcan, which is supposed to bring you back from an opioid overdose, but the Xylazine is still suppressing your breathing, so it’s this double whammy,” he said.


Xylazine is already being seen in Michigan, making its way to the Midwest from the Southern border,

“It’s coming mainly from Mexico,” Verdow said. “I’m not going to say 100%, but the vast majority of it is coming through there. Just because of the size of our border, the Southwest border, it’s the easiest spot for them to be able to bring their products in. And, you know, for as far as with the Fentanyl and the Xylazine, not only are they producing their own in labs, the vast majority of precursors for these drugs are coming from China, and they ship into Mexico and then they come right up through into our country.”

Verdow believes that the Mexican drug cartels are set up in all 50 states with distribution hubs and transportation routes that stretch from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Upper Peninsula using highways like US 131 in Michigan.

“This (US-131) is one of the major routes that the traffickers and the organizations will use when they’re transporting drugs. They can drop off whatever they’re carrying here in the Grand Rapids area, or they can continue north to Traverse City or even go further up into the Upper Peninsula,” he said.

Experienced traffickers will scout ahead of time to check for police presence.

“They’ll take alternate routes or they’ll just move up the time that they’re going to be traveling up there. Sometimes they’ll have follow cars so that way they can always have someone who’s looking out in front of or behind the actual car or vehicle that’s carrying the drugs,” he said.

Those scouts will then give a heads up to the load car if there are cops up ahead. But even if the load car gets pulled over, it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of the drugs

“They’re taking all their direction from somebody who’s in Mexico or who could be in a different state,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘All I do is take direction from the phone.’ That follow car, they let the handler know or the controller know, ‘Hey, there’s a problem with the stop.’ They will cease and desist all communication between them, and they will even destroy the phones.”

The cartels are getting their delivery methods down to a science, where it’s just as profitable, if not more, to send drugs to remote areas like Northern Michigan and sell them at a price lower than anyone locally can produce.

“Their organizations are run like multinational corporations,” he said.

And the impact of their business is destroying lives and communities at an alarming rate.

Adam Newth is porch team lead at Addiction Treatment Services, the very place that helped him break his addiction.

“I was always looking for something to escape, and I was just able to find that in drugs. I ended up finding the drug that helped me do it the best, and that’s what eventually brought me to my knees,” he said.

Newth was introduced to drugs in high school after a doctor prescribed him pain medication for an injury. The addiction took hold and wouldn’t let go. He’s been in and out of rehab and jail more than a dozen times and struggled with homelessness for years.

“It literally took everything from me,” he said. “I took my housing. It took any chance at stable employment. I sold most possessions that I had. It kept me away from my son. I only worried about getting the next one and everything else didn’t matter. It is such a powerful pull that it separates everything that should matter, because your focus becomes lasered on that.”

Emmy Hendry, the CQO at Addiction Treatment Services, feels that understanding the desperation of addiction is the first step in helping people who struggle with it

She said, “It’s cunning and powerful and it’s something that is not in our control. It’s really about the powerlessness that we feel to the power that is addiction and that it’s not really our choice.”

Something she says can only be fixed with a compassionate knowledge of the disease.

“You’re not alone in the feelings that you feel or the barriers that you’re facing. We’re here for you every step of the way,” she said.

Meanwhile Verdow points to the crisis at the Southern border, which according to Customs and Border Protection has seen more than 7.5 million migrants cross into the United States since 2021, as fueling the drug crisis in America.

“The cartels are very they control the borders, they control routes,” he said. “They’ll flood an area with migrants since they control a large portion of who’s coming across. They use them as a diversion to cover when they have loads coming through. They play the numbers: If they can get X amount of this money and they flood the border with them, then more is going to come across. I’m not trying to give a political answer, its just a fact.”

However, the answer isn’t so clear when it comes to solving the overdose epidemic. McNeal spotlights the dueling issues of supply and demand.

“Well, we have a supply and a demand problem,” he said. “DEA, our primary goal as a law enforcement side to go after those high level traffickers, those transnational drug trafficking organizations in to stop the source.”

That addresses the supply side. For the demand side, the DEA has initiated outreach programs.

“DEA has begun to dedicate resources to help not only the federal government address the demand, but to go in with our state and local partners as well, and to say to them, we’re not the government coming into your town telling you how to deal with your problem. We want to hear from you. And perhaps there are resources that we have that can aid a local municipality or a town or school to do to look at what they’re doing and help and amplify those efforts,” McNeal added. “You know, there are certainly there are those who belong behind bars who are just doing it, just doing harm to our communities. They absolutely need to be brought to justice. But going into a community and perhaps, you know, I’ve been a part of this is going to sound insane. It was a dance program. It was over spring break.”

Newth feels going through the legal system, gave him temporary control of his addiction, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.

“There might be brief periods of time where because of legal obligations, I was at least appear to be adhering to requirements set forth by probation, but because I never really wanted it, then it never lasted. Did it maybe save my life? Possibly. But it was only brief reprieves from using. It wasn’t any sustained recovery,” he said.

Newth credits the gift of desperation for turning his life around.

“An old sponsor came to see me and told me he thought I wasn’t going to live long. And I finally heard him, like I actually heard those words that he was saying, and it meant something. And so I did something about it,” he said.

And when he did, Addiction Treatment Services was waiting for him with open arms.

“We want to be able to meet people where they’re at so that any step in their journey of understanding or their willingness to try or their willingness to understand we’re there and ready to help them,” Hendry said.

As for Verdow, he’s dedicated his life to fighting against the people who supply the deadly drugs.

“As long as the DEA is here, we are going to target you. If you are the ones poisoning our communities, we will not stop,” he said.

The illegal drug trade is a billion dollar business that is getting more dangerous and deadly by the day, killing at least nine people a day in Michigan, and more than 300 people a day nationwide.

If you or someone you know struggles with addiction, contact your nearest treatment center for help.

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