Tranq Tourism: Is Social Media Fueling the Drug Epidemic?

Hermina Drah
Morgan Blair
Written by Hermina Drah on 24 April 2024
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 11 June 2024

Philadelphia is emerging as a hotspot for a disturbing trend called "tranq tourism." This phenomenon involves social media users, particularly from platforms like YouTube and TikTok, descending on the Kensington neighborhood to film individuals using intravenous drugs. 

The primary focus is on tranq, a street term for xylazine, a veterinary sedative that has recently become a prevalent adulterant in the city’s opioid market.

Tranq Tourism: Is Social Media Fueling the Drug Epidemic?

What is tranq tourism?

Tranq tourism involves individuals, frequently social media influencers on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, visiting areas known for significant drug addiction issues to record the inhabitants, especially those affected by the drug xylazine, also known as "tranq". 

Xylazine, originally designed for veterinary purposes, has increasingly been found in the illicit drug market where it is commonly combined with opioids like fentanyl to create what is known as “tranq dope”. The mix of xylazine and fentanyl has led to a surge in overdose fatalities, largely because of the profound physiological effects that result from the interaction of these two strong sedatives.

Videos posted on social media capture the drug use in Kensington, a low-income area in Philadelphia, with many featuring users sprawled on the ground or close-ups of individuals struggling with the debilitating effects of tranq.

The side effects of Xylazine include reduced alertness levels, severe muscle relaxation, respiratory depression, cardiac arrhythmias, severely low or high blood pressure, and even coma. Often, users find it difficult to stay in an upright position, occasionally slumping forward in the middle of the street. Some even develop necrotic wounds, leading to them being labeled "zombies".

How bad is the tranq dope problem?

In the United States, the use of xylazine in illegal drug blends is raising alarms. Due to the recent surge in overdose fatalities, the White House identified the substance as a rising drug threat.

Originally, the drug was detected in heroin mixtures in Puerto Rico, but it quickly spread across the US. Tranq appeared in the street opioid supply of the streets of Philadelphia around the mid-2010s.

Recent reports show that more than 90 percent of opioid samples from Philadelphia now test positive for the drug.

  • Alongside fentanyl, xylazine was detected in 413 out of 59,498 samples across 25 states.
  • Lab tests reveal a significant rise in xylazine detection in the South, evident in US drug samples from 2020 and 2021.
  • Xylazine is identified as a factor in escalating overdose deaths between 2019 and 2020.
  • In 2019, 1.8 percent of overdose deaths were due to xylazine overdose.
  • In January 2019, the monthly percentage of deaths involving illegally manufactured fentanyl with xylazine was 3 percent, while in June 2022, the rate rose to 11 percent.

Spreading awareness or exploitation?

Many believe that tranq tourism is done for personal interests like gaining followers and likes, not for helping struggling users. While influencers often claim that their content highlights the severe situation in places like Kensington, the motives and methods of these creators frequently lean towards exploitation.

For instance, many creators film without the consent of the subjects. Often, due to the influence of the drugs, tranq users aren't in a state to agree to be filmed for social media. Moreover, the content often captures drug users at their most vulnerable — without respecting their dignity or offering support.

These videos might raise awareness about the growing issue of tranq addiction but the approach often borders on exploitation. According to a Kensington content creator called "Jeff", there is a way to make these videos and help the community. Jeff earns around $1,000 per month, which he uses to purchase items such as clothing, wound care products, and fentanyl test strips for individuals affected.

Censorship and neutrality: Are social platforms creating a barrier to treatment?

YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms like TikTok play major roles in shaping conversations around topics such as the ongoing drug crisis in the United States.

These platforms enforce censorship policies aimed at adhering to legal standards and ensuring the safety of the community. Yet, these censorship policies can influence how information about drug addiction and recovery is shared.

TikTok enforces strict rules against content that possibly endorses drug usage. The censorship policy is well-meaning, but it can restrict content that shares stories of recovered users or educational material about drug addiction.

YouTube imposes restrictions on video content that potentially encourages dangerous behaviors such as drug use. That said, YouTube provides some flexibility for video content regarded as educational, artistic, or documentary.

Instagram is strongly against content that glorifies or promotes the use of drugs. However, the social media platform supports content that promotes recovery and provides help for addicts.

A word from recovered

Genuine awareness about the tranq problem in the United States involves empathizing with the individuals shown in such videos and offering access to support services and treatment.

Resources:

  1. Papudesi, B. N., Malayala, S. V., & Regina, A. C. (2023). Xylazine toxicity. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.
  2. National Institute On Drug Abuse. (2022, April 21). Xylazine. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/xylazine
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, May 5). What You Should Know About Xylazine | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center. Www.cdc.gov.
  4. Hoffman, J. (2023, January 7). Tranq dope: Animal sedative mixed with fentanyl brings fresh horror to U.S. drug zones. The New York Times.
  5. Empson, O. (2023, December 17). ‘Tranq tourism’: alarm in Philadelphia as TikTokers travel to film drug users. The Guardian. Retrieved from
  6. Koenig, M. (2023, December 17). TikTokkers slammed for filming Philadelphia drug users in 'tranq tourism'. New York Post.
  7. Ohlheiser, A. W. (2021, July 13). Welcome to TikTok’s endless cycle of censorship and mistakes. MIT Technology Review.
  8. TikTok. (2023, March). Community guidelines. TikTok. Retrieved from
  9. YouTube. (n.d.). Community Guidelines. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
  10. Instagram. (n.d.). Terms and policies. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

Activity History - Last updated: 11 June 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 23 April 2024 and last checked on 11 June 2024

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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