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UCLA team researches illicit drug supply chain in Los Angeles

Pictured are immunoassay test strips from a drug checking clinic. As part of a UCLA study, the epidemiology lab tests drugs on streets in Los Angeles. (Drug Checking Los Angeles)

By Katherine Wang

Aug. 27, 2023 10:05 a.m.

This post was updated Aug. 27 at 8:37 p.m.

A UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine team launched the Drug Checking Los Angeles project to reduce illicit drug overdoses.

Chelsea Shover, the principal investigator of the study, said in an emailed statement that she started the research project to better understand and help regulate the illicit drug supply in LA. Her team began drug testing in January and since has completed over 360 samples. Shover added that she feels the project has so far achieved satisfactory progress in learning the makeup of the supply chain.

“The illicit drug supply is, by definition, unregulated with no formal quality control,” Shover said. “Community-based drug checking can potentially give us much more timely information about how the drug supply might be changing, so we can help prevent overdose and other harms.”

Drug Checking LA collects clients’ demographic information and tests drug samples for people to make informed decisions about their drug use in Hollywood, Downtown LA and East LA on a weekly basis, according to the Drug Checking LA website. For more complex samples, the team sends the residue to a lab for secondary testing, which takes longer to return the results but is more accurate, according to the website.

Caitlin Molina, project manager of the study, said she joined the team to raise awareness about drug safety and link the community to related resources by helping initiate drug-checking services in the city.

“On an individual level, knowing the contents of the drug supply really empowers people who use drugs to make informed decisions about their own health,” Molina said. “From a population level, what we’re doing is really drug supply surveillance.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 600,000 people died from an opioid overdose between 1999 and 2021. Deaths by synthetic opioid overdose, excluding methadone, increased by over 22% between 2020 and 2021 primarily because of a significant rise in illicitly manufactured fentanyl distribution, according to the CDC.

Ruby Romero, a project director who assists Molina with drug checking, said the project received a grant from the CDC that will allow it to run for at least five more years.

While drug-checking programs began in the early 1990s, the UCLA research study is the first program to initiate the service in LA, according to the Drug Checking LA website. The UCLA team partners with community organizations in LA to educate local people who use drugs, according to the website.

Brian Hurley, a medical director at the LA County Department of Public Health, said the county has worked with the UCLA Drug Checking LA project and hopes to engage more institutions to broaden the accessibility of overdose prevention and treatment services.

“One sector is not going to be able to do all of the work that’s going to take to get us out of the overdose crisis,” Hurley said. “We need the whole community involved and engaged, so we’re really happy to be working with UCLA, who’s an academic partner.”

As project manager, Molina said her role is to launch and run the project. She said she leads data collection at community syringe service programs and uses Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy – a machine that uses light absorption to produce unique wavelengths of a sample’s components – and test strips to check each sample.

“It probably takes us about 10 minutes or less, depending on how complex the sample is,” Molina said. “If you think about every substance as having its own unique fingerprint, it’s our job as technicians to go through and try and pull out the different components of the samples (using FTIR), and then after that, we do the test strips.”

According to the team, the project has received largely positive feedback from the community. Romero said local stakeholders have shown consistent support for the project throughout its progression.

Many of the people the team talked to said they believe the project would be meaningful if it could prevent even just one death by drug overdose, Romero said. She also said people appreciate the information and resources for safer drug use the team is bringing to LA.

Molina added that she felt Drug Checking LA has not only benefited local individuals but also their friends and families, both physically and psychologically.

“We’ve had a lot of folks who are interested in partnering with us to offer this at more events,” Molina said. “We have a lot of clients who, if they know somebody who has overdosed, … will bring whatever substance it was to testing because it offers them a little bit more peace of mind.”

Romero added that she hopes to see drug-checking services become more accessible and widely accepted in reducing overdoses as a public health effort.

According to the LA County Department of Public Health’s 2023-2028 strategic plan, the department’s vision is for all individuals and communities in the county to pursue their goals without the burden of substance use and addiction. Hurley added that, to reach the goal, they are working on expanding equitable prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery services.

Shover said her long-term mission is to devise more effective drug-checking methods and recruit more providers to help prevent overdoses and the consequential harms.

“I want to establish ongoing surveillance of the illicit drug supply,” Shover said. “My vision is to use the information from drug checking to systematically inform prevention.”

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