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State Senate Committee delays vote on Xylazine scheduling

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

Senate lawmakers requested more time to deliberate before permanently classifying Xylazine as a controlled substance during a Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock issued an emergency order earlier this month classifying the veterinary tranquilizer Xylazine as a Schedule III controlled substance — a decision he argued was necessary to enable law enforcement to intervene as Xylazine becomes a ubiquitous feature of Delaware’s drug supply.

On the illicit market, Xylazine most often appears in combination with opioids like fentanyl, though it is not an opioid itself — posing a significant public health challenge, given that overdose reversal and withdrawal treatment drugs developed for opioids are not effective for Xylazine overdoses or withdrawal.

The exact source of illicit Xylazine is unclear — law enforcement are unsure whether it is added to drug supplies locally or introduced before illicit drugs enter the United States — and Delaware does not yet have up-to-date data on Xylazine’s presence in seized drug samples.

The legislation considered by the Senate Committee on Wednesday would permanently schedule the drug before the emergency order expires in November.

Aside from restricting the drug’s distribution, the bill would make the illicit sale of Xylazine a felony and illicit possession a misdemeanor.

The Delaware State Police and other law enforcement agencies have pre-arrest diversion programs to enable people struggling with addiction to avoid jail time, and smaller departments — including those in Georgetown and Seaford — have in-house clinicians specializing in substance abuse disorders. But Senate Health Committee Chair Sarah McBride noted that if law enforcement agencies end those programs in the future, the bill would expand opportunities to take a punitive approach to drug policy.

"We lull ourselves into this idea of linear policy making wherein we've moved from this draconian approach to drug policy, but as we see in other issues, there is potential for backsliding," she said. “I want to make sure that we’re not, with all good intention, creating a situation where, if a backslide were to occur in approach, there would be the mechanisms in place to criminalize people in possession and struggling with addiction challenges.”

Representatives from the Delaware State Police and other law enforcement agencies present for the hearing reaffirmed their commitment to diversion programs, and Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director Joanna Champney noted that the bill also includes language legalizing possession of Xylazine test strips, which would otherwise be considered drug paraphernalia.

“One of the things we’ve been very interested in is ensuring is that the test strips for the substance would be added to the exempt list for paraphernalia," she said, "so individuals will be able to have a harm reduction tool to test substances on the street.”

Some harm reduction workers in Delaware are already distributing Xylazine test strips, and one group of drug users in Georgetown is attempting to launch a crowd-sourced testing project that relies on users to provide small drug samples and identify the street branding of substances containing Xylazine.

Citing the need for further discussions about how to ensure a balance between diversion and enforcement in Delaware's approach to Xylazine, McBride delayed a vote on the bill, though it will likely return for consideration before the end of the legislative session at the end of June.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.