San Diego man convicted in fentanyl-xylazine case as local evidence grows of dangerous ‘tranq’ drug

The downtown resident told investigators after his arrest in April that he was a middleman in a fentanyl distribution pipeline. He would buy drugs in bulk from a supplier, repackage them and ship them across the country, keeping a small portion of the profits.

Somewhere along this process, someone tried to make the fentanyl supply appear larger than it actually was by cutting it with another substance, the animal tranquilizer xylazine.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Jinsook Ohta sentenced that middleman, a 40-year-old forklift operator who was also a drug addict, to five years in federal prison. Earlier this year, he admitted in a plea deal to possessing more than 2 kilograms of fentanyl with the intent to distribute the drugs. He also admitted that the fentanyl tested positive for xylazine.

Known as a tranquilizer or tranquilizing drug when it is transformed into fentanyl and heroin and sold on the streets, xylazine can prolong the effect of other drugs. But the substance intended to sedate farmed animals such as horses and cattle can also cause them to faint for hours, leaving them vulnerable, and create festering sores at injection sites that can kill limbs and result in amputations.

The growing presence of xylazine in the U.S. illicit drug supply has drawn the attention of law enforcement and lawmakers this year. Months after a New York Times story first highlighted illicit drug use, a bipartisan group of congressmen introduced identical bills in the Senate and House of Representatives to legislate on the drug, while the White House in April , designated it as an emerging threat.

While it’s unclear exactly how prevalent xylazine has become in the illicit drug supply in San Diego County, Friday’s ruling was further proof, and one of the most detailed examples yet, that tranquilizing drugs have reached to San Diego.

We are aware of this emerging drug and the dangers that come with it, Lt. David LaDieu, a spokesman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, wrote in an email Friday.

LaDieu said the sheriff’s crime lab, which processes and identifies drugs seized by deputies and sheriff’s officers from most other county police departments except San Diego, has so far in 2023 detected the presence of xylazine in 16 of 284 cases.

That’s about 5.6 percent. That’s more than about 4% of fentanyl samples that tested positive for xylazine during a three-month pilot testing program by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In January, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego field office reported that xylazine had been detected 23 times in the past two fiscal years, four times in 2021 and 19 times in 2022, during testing of drugs seized in San Diego. Diego and the imperial counties.

The agency was unable to provide an update on those numbers as of Friday, but a spokesperson said many of the drugs seized by the DEA and tested at the regional laboratory are transient and therefore do not necessarily paint the same picture as the local drug supply. drugs that tests done by sheriffs and police labs.

San Diego Police Lt. Adam Sharki said Friday that the city’s crime lab saw (xylazine) in samples but would not confirm or test it.

It is not controlled and we only test for controlled substances, Sharki wrote in an email. He said the lab has no plans to begin testing it unless it is controlled.

A DEA intelligence report from October said the growing use of xylazine as an addition to fentanyl may be driven in part by its low cost and lower risk of police scrutiny since it is not a controlled substance. But efforts are underway to change that.

In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Combat Illicit Xylazine Act in both chambers of Congress. A key part of the bill, which has been referred to committees in both chambers, would protect xylazine for its legitimate veterinary use while classifying it as a Schedule III controlled substance when used illicitly. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Association of Attorneys General support the legislation.

A month after this federal law was proposed, the Biden administration designated fentanyl mixed with xylazine as an emerging threat.

As a doctor, I am deeply concerned about the devastating impact of the fentanyl-xylazine combination, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement in April. As President Biden’s drug policy advisor, I am immensely concerned about what this threat means for the nation.

Coincidentally, two days before the White House’s announcement, federal investigators in San Diego arrested the middleman who transported drugs and received cash shipments. According to the criminal complaint in his case, Homeland Security Investigations agents began monitoring his actions when a package addressed to him was intercepted at a FedEx facility in San Diego. Investigators said the package contained $19,490 in cash and tested positive for traces of fentanyl.

On April 10, undercover HSI agents followed the man, who was driving a white Mercedes-Benz SUV, from his downtown San Diego apartment to a Postal Attachment store in El Cajon. Outside the premises, they surrounded his vehicle and arrested him.

Agents who searched the SUV found a vacuum-sealed bag containing more than 2 pounds of a white powdery substance wrapped in several layers of packaging. A field test conducted on the substance returned positive results for both fentanyl and xylazine, according to the criminal complaint. While the plea agreement acknowledges the presence of xylazine, it does not provide details about how or when the xylazine was added to the fentanyl.

Federal court records reviewed by the Union-Tribune showed at least one other case in which law enforcement authorities detected the presence of xylazine in a drug sample. In that case, a man inadvertently shot himself in the groin in March 2022 in Logan Heights. Responding officers found a waist bag they believed belonged to the man containing powdered fentanyl, as well as 834 counterfeit oxycodone pills that the DEA laboratory later confirmed contained fentanyl and xylazine.

He has pleaded not guilty to federal drug charges.

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