Over the last year, xylazine has become increasingly present in street drugs in the region. In September, samples of heroin and fentanyl tested with over 50 per cent xylazine.   

Julian Ichim, local activist, is at the forefront of preventing xylazine deaths in Kitchener. Ichim is a core member of the community group, the Alan Ryan People’s Community Defence Brigade, which is a collection of anti-poverty activists supporting homeless and low-income community members.   

“Our main focus right now is on xylazine, keeping xylazine off of the streets. Xylazine is not made for humans,” Ichim said. “We collect samples—some voluntary, some not so voluntary—and we test them see what’s in them. And if something has like xylazine, or like a huge quantity of xylazine, we try to warn to community, as well as dump it.”   

Xylazine, also called “tranq” and “zombie drug”, is a veterinary analgesic and sedative. It is not approved for use in humans and causing central nervous system depression—that is, lowered heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. It also causes drowsiness, amnesia and severe wounds and ulcers on the skin.  

While it is typically mixed with opioids like heroin and fentanyl, there is no antidote to address a xylazine overdose. Naloxone is still recommended to address overdoses, however it can only address the opioid portion of whatever substance the person has used—it does not impact xylazine in the compound. In addition, it is impossible to detect the components of a drug sample without special equipment.   

“There’s no way of knowing what you’re getting until you put it in your vein,” Ichim said.  

The Sanguen Health Centre in downtown Kitchener helps people who bring in samples of drugs by testing them for different substances, including xylazine.   

While community and government organizations play a role, folks who use drugs take action for the own safety as well. For example, residents of tent cities typically set up their own safe injection sites within encampments. Ichim said these also ensuring access to a nurse or other healthcare professional and naloxone training.   

“People are active, they’re not going to just sit back. And people know what their rights are, people have some basic understanding there’s communication and a sense of solidarity,” Ichim said.   

“That is a sort of resistance, like setting up a fucking tent and like has and being there with naloxone while people are shooting up. I’ve been in that role before and it’s scary as fuck,” he said.   

An outreach worker who wished to remain anonymous said grassroots organizations are taking on a lot of the responsibility that should fall on various levels of government or other organizations that receive funding for their work.   

“The city is using the Alan Ryan People’s Community Defence Brigade to do the work. We don’t get paid, but we’re the ones that put up the injection side. We’re the ones that held meetings with the public to find out the need and the urgency of it, we met with the Health Department.,” he said.    

“There’s organization that should be doing this. And they’re collecting a bunch of money to do their jobs. But the city is relying on the street folks to do it all,” the outreach worker said.   

The outreach worker said many of the dealers in the downtown Kitchener are from out of town, since many low-income folks from the area were relocated to shelters and encampments around the region.  

“Not all the dealers come from town. A lot of people come from out of town to do drugs and they were taking over like the streets,” he said. “I know that more than half this dealers on King Street now that they’re only here during the day or at nighttime…they come from out of town.”  

Ichim said that in order to address substance use and addiction, the root causes must be addressed.  He said there are both people on the ground and people in the system working to ensure the safety of drugs.   

“You have people on the ground,” Ichim said.  

“And you have people within the system that are pushing for safe supply, legalization, and you have a cross over people who are in between, that are giving us access, or giving members of our community access to technology, they wouldn’t have spectrometers—I couldn’t buy that,” he said.   

In addition, decriminalization is an important first step to addressing substance use and addiction. Criminalization, however, exasperates its already harmful impacts.   

“When you’re dealing with individuals that are addicted to substances, thro0wing them in jail isn’t going to be a solution,” Ichim said. “It’s a reality, and we have to deal with it. And if it is legal, and if people in the community can control it, then people know what they’re getting.”  

“People use drugs, because they’re either medicating for physical problems, like pain and whatever, and they can’t see a doctor or they don’t have access to a doctor, or they don’t have a health card or whatever. Or they’re dealing with psychological issues, or they’re on the streets, and they’re in a horrible situation.  

The outreach worker echoed Ichim’s sentiment but added that legalization must be the goal. Whereas decriminalization means that people using small amounts of drugs will not be penalized, legalization means that the drugs in question would be available to buy from licensed sellers.   

Legalization, the outreach worker said, is needed to ensure that supplies are high quality and people using drugs can know exactly what they are using.   

“By legalizing [drugs], you’re putting [them] in pharmacies, in proper hands…distribution can be controlled by the government, but it’s also a lot safer for the client to know what they’re buying,” he said.   

The outreach worker has experience working in different parts of the region. He said people like Ichim are key to advocacy and activism.   

“In Kitchener there’s a Julian…And Julian doesn’t let shit fly. So, when things are wrong, he’ll say it out loud. He doesn’t have a problem marching into the mayor’s office and complaining,” he said.