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LA County Sheriff Knew of 'Tranq' Risk Long Before Public Warned

Just two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health warned in a news release that the animal tranquilizer xylazine, known as "tranq," was “increasingly present within illicit drugs in California” and that it was now “likely present” in Los Angeles. The warning made no mention that xylazine had been detected previously locally or in other California cities because public health officials had never been told that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department knew of its presence on the streets at least four years ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. Because, despite its harms, the drug is not a controlled substance, the Sheriff Department’s crime lab did not conduct further testing to confirm the results and did not alert the public. “Our mission is very narrowly focused: We confirm the presence of controlled substances,” said Joseph Cavaleri, an acting supervising criminalist in the Controlled Substances Section of the department’s crime lab. “Right now we don’t do that for xylazine because it’s not a controlled substance.”


The drug has become increasingly common, especially on the East Coast. The powerful sedative has been linked to deaths across the country and can cause human tissue to rot, leaving users with grisly wounds that sometimes lead to amputations. Cavaleri confirmed that the lab’s gas chromatography–mass spectrometry testing had been picking up indications of the drug’s presence in samples for years. “Working as an analyst, I have seen it as long as four years ago,” Cavaleri said. Since then, the substance has popped 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 not clear where in the county those samples have come from, or whether they were part of a large seizure or a small bust. Drug experts in Los Angeles were taken aback to learn that there had been indications of the drug’s presence in local drug supplies for so long. “I am surprised that it has been showing up for multiple years,” said Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist and health services researcher at UCLA. “But it is consistent with the other anecdotal evidence I’ve heard.” Steven Shoptaw, a professor in family medicine at UCLA who studies drug abuse, echoed Shover’s response. “I’m literally shocked,” he said.

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