HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The Pennsylvania House committee has advanced a bill that would criminalize the illicit possession of xylazine, a medicine approved for veterinary use that’s now being mixed with other illicit drugs.

The House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee passed the bill with bipartisan support with a 16-8 vote on Wednesday. The bill still faces additional votes in the House and Senate before heading to the Governor’s desk.

The bill would modify The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act and ban the possession of xylazine, with an exemption for proper veterinary use.

“Xylazine is a very serious issue”, Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset County), who introduced the bill, said. “This is one of those issues where it’s not illegal in and of itself until we make it that way.”

The animal tranquilizer is showing up more and more, usually mixed with other illegal drugs. Using “tranq” can lead to skin wounds, and because it is an opioid, Narcan is not effective against a xylazine overdose.

In June Governor Josh Shapiro announced the Department of Health would temporarily classify xylazine as a Schedule III controlled substance.

“This action will protect veterinarians and other legitimate users and manufacturers of xylazine, which is an important medication for animal sedation, while also creating penalties for people who add illicit xylazine to the drug supply that is harming people in our communities,” said Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Debra Bogen in June . “Our focus remains on developing strategies that help connect people with substance use disorder to treatment and other resources.” 

However, the bill that passed through the committee on Wednesday would not list xylazine as a Schedule III controlled substance. Lawmakers say this would allow veterinarians to properly acquire the drug for safe usage.

“Lack of expedient access to xylazine for veterinary patients will be a detriment to animal welfare and human safety,” Metzgar said. “Veterinarians and animal handlers rely on ready access to xylazine when performing elective and emergency procedures on livestock to facilitate safe handling.”

The Department of Health’s actions did allow for legal veterinary use. According to the agency, the Shapiro administration worked with the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association on the issue. Metzgar said he applauds the governor’s efforts, but he said he is still worried the Schedule III classification would limit legal access.

“Obviously, we’re trying to protect our population, make sure that it’s not abused, but also still be able to do all of the legal things that we need to do,” he said.

Some Democrats have voiced concern over the bill, including the issue of how veterinary facilities store the drug to prevent theft or unauthorized access.

“I’m just trying to make sure that people who don’t have the prescription don’t have access to it because there are a lot of kids in these facilities too,” Rep. Christina Sappey (D-Chester County) said in the committee hearing.

Allegheny County Democrat Emily Kinkead voiced her strong opposition to the bill, saying focus on attacking this problem should be on treatment, not prosecution.

“This is not going to have any kind of deterring effect,” she said. “It didn’t work with meth, it didn’t work with cocaine, it didn’t work with heroin.”

Metzgar said he understands the concern but explained criminalization is just one tool he wants to give prosecutors. He added prosecution can help identify people who need resources.

“Criminalizing everything doesn’t make it go away, but it does give us options to try and handle it,” he said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has issued warnings regarding a “sharp increase” in the trafficking of fentanyl mixed with xylazine, also known as “Tranq.”

“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” said Administrator Milgram. “DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”

The DEA says those who are using the drug could experience severe wounds, including rotting skin tissue, which may lead to amputation. Because xylazine is not an opioid, medication such as Narcan can not reverse an overdose.

A DEA study found a 61% increase in labs identifying xylazine in the northeast region in 2021 compared to the year prior.