It was at least four years ago that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials say they began finding signs of a dangerous sedative making its way into the local drug supply.
At the time, the presence of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, was not well known to the public, although it has since become increasingly common, especially on the East Coast. The powerful sedative, also known as “tranq,” has been linked to deaths across the country and can cause human tissue to rot, leaving users with creepy wounds which sometimes lead to amputations.
But because, despite its damages, the drug is not a controlled substance, the Sheriff’s Department’s crime lab did not conduct further testing to confirm the results and did not alert the public.
“Our mission has a very narrow focus: We confirm the presence of controlled substances,” said Joseph Cavaleri, an interim supervising criminalist in the Department’s crime lab Controlled Substances Section. “Right now we don’t do that with xylazine because it’s not a controlled substance.”
But he confirmed that the lab’s gas chromatography and mass spectrometry tests had been picking up hints of the drug’s presence in the samples for years.
“Working as an analyst, I’ve seen it four years ago,” Cavaleri said. Since then, the substance has turned up “from time to time,” but he said it wasn’t clear how often because the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t track it. It’s also unclear where in the county those samples came from, or if they were part of a large seizure or a small raid.
Los Angeles drug experts were shocked to learn that there had been indications of the drug’s presence in local drug supplies for so long.
“It amazes me that it’s been showing up for several years,” said Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist and health services researcher at UCLA. “But it’s consistent with the other anecdotal evidence I’ve heard.”
Steven Shoptaw, a professor of family medicine at UCLA who studies drug abuse, echoed Shover’s response.
“I’m literally shocked,” he said.
That’s partly because, until this year, officials gave few clear indications to the public about their findings. In February, a county health official confirmed told The Times that one man, a 25-year-old in El Monte, had trace levels of xylazine in his body when he died in December 2021. But the drug was present in such small amounts that the county medical examiner listed “combined effects “. of ethanol and fentanyl” as the cause of death.
Then, two weeks ago, the county Department of Public Health issued a press release warning Angelenos that the sedative was “increasingly present in illicit drugs in California” and was now “probably present” in Los Angeles. The press release mentioned the 2021 death and several others in other parts of the state. But while he said xylazine had been detected in samples in northern and southern cities, he said nothing about whether there were similar findings locally.
According to Dr. Brian Hurley, medical director of the department’s Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control, that’s because public health officials have not yet been informed.
“The data we get from law enforcement tends to focus on law enforcement’s mission,” Hurley said. “At the time of the press release, we had not received that information from the Sheriff’s Department.”
Those details came a day later, he said.
“While the information from the Sheriff’s Department corroborated our message, I don’t think it changed the underlying message that xylazine is in the community and the public should know about it,” Hurley continued, saying he was grateful for LASD’s partnership on the issue. .
It’s unclear if the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime lab had similar findings, as the department did not respond to questions sent by The Times this week.
The news comes just after a Press release from the Drug Enforcement Administration warning Americans that xylazine has become increasingly common in illicit drug supplies across the country.
Although it is used for animals in veterinary settings, the drug is not approved for use in humans. “Tranq” is often mixed with fentanyl, heroin, and counterfeit pills, making potentially dangerous drugs even more dangerous. Since xylazine is not an opioid, the overdose medication naloxone does not reverse its effects.
“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said. “The DEA has seized mixtures of xylazine and fentanyl in 48 out of 50 states. The DEA Laboratory System reports that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”
Combining the two drugs makes an overdose even more likely, according to the DEA.
The agency had no comment in response to a query sent Wednesday about whether its crime labs had detected the drug in the Los Angeles area, though earlier this year federal authorities said they had found it repeatedly in Los Angeles counties. San Diego and Imperial.
Kelly McKay, a spokeswoman for the DEA San Diego field office, told the San Diego Union Tribune in January, that xylazine showed up on drug tests four times during fiscal year 2021 and 19 times the following year. Compared to the number of drug seizures per year, that means xylazine was still a relative rarity, occurring in less than 1% of samples tested.
“In terms of all the drug exhibits seized, this is a small number of exhibits,” McKay wrote in an email.
In San Francisco, Local authorities issued a warning in February after finding trace amounts of the drug in the systems of four people who died of overdoses between mid-December and mid-January.
Shoptaw explained that part of the reason for the increased appearance of the drug could be because it makes fentanyl last longer, helping users avoid withdrawal.
“Fentanyl has a very fast half-life, and when you include xylazine with fentanyl, it does two things,” he said. “It reduces some of the painful symptoms of opioid withdrawal. (Y) it prolongs the effects of the fentanyl so it doesn’t have to come back up as quickly.”
But in addition to appearing as an adulterant in fentanyl and powdered heroin, Cavaleri said the sedative also appeared in counterfeit pills, including at least once in fake Xanax. Typically, when in a mixture, Cavaleri added, the sedative appears at a lower concentration than the parent drug.
“It’s been here for a while,” he continued, “but we don’t know how long and to what extent.”
Finding that out, Shover said, requires more widespread testing.
“Indications suggest that xylazine is present in Los Angeles to a greater degree than previously suspected,” he said. “However, because there is no systematic evidence for it, it is difficult to know how much.”