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Xylazine criminalization headed to governors desk

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(The Center Square) — Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer expanding into the illicit drug market, will soon face more restrictions as Pennsylvania tries to combat overdoses and the social ills of drug abuse.

A bill championed by Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset, would make xylazine possession a felony offense while allowing it for veterinary purposes.

House Bill 1661 passed 169-34 in the House back in October and cleared the Senate 49-1 in May. On Monday, the House concurred in the Senate’s amendments and voted 172-29 to send it to Gov. Josh Shapiro, where it awaits his signature.

Local and state pressure has been building for months. Philadelphia is marked as the epicenter of xylazine, also known as tranq, and overdoses have trended upward. Mayor Cherelle Parker has focused on cleaning up Kensington, the drug-ridden northeastern neighborhood as critics decry her plans.

Promoting his bill last fall, Metzgar argued that criminalizing tranq is necessary to protect veterinary access to xylazine and gives police the tools to charge addicts and get them into treatment programs.

“This legislation enables our partners in law enforcement to go after dealers and suppliers that are poisoning our communities by intentionally putting this venom into the drug supply,” Sen. Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, said last week on the Senate floor.

Tartaglione represents Kensington and much of northeast Philadelphia.

“(Kensington & Allegheny) and the surrounding communities have been through hell throughout this epidemic,” she said. “Xylazine has no place in our society.”

But some House Democrats railed against the bill.

“Substance abuse is a disease; it should be treated as such, we should treat (users) with health providers ,not with prison,” Rep. Tarik Khan, D-Philadelphia, said on the House floor in October.

Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Pittsburgh, echoed Khan on Monday.

“The simple fact of the matter is putting xylazine into our Drug Control Act is the definition of insanity: we are doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results,” she said.

Kinkead argued that banning xylazine won’t deter possession because most drug users don’t know that xylazine is mixed in with their drugs.

“We are putting someone in a position where they could face five years in prison for a substance that they don’t know they possess,” she said.

During the House’s October vote, she called for more harm reduction efforts, drug treatment resources, anti-poverty programs, mental health services, affordable housing, and education to confront Pennsylvania’s overdose epidemic.