UNC lab analyzing, identifying substances in street drugs

Since 2021, the lab has tested about 5,600 samples, identifying more than 270 different substances.

Scientists inside a room at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Caudill Labs are doing work that’s not happening anywhere else in the country. They’re receiving thousands of street drug samples, running them through a machine to get a real-time look at what’s in them.

“Normally, we don’t find out what is in street drugs until it is too late — when people are either dead or arrested,” said Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, the senior scientist at UNC’s Street Drug Analysis Lab. “There’s no opportunity for prevention; no opportunity for recovery.”

The scientists don’t need much to test — just a sample less than a grain of rice. About 200 public health organizations, including 34 in North Carolina, send in kits with samples.

On the day WRAL News visited the lab, four boxes arrived from places like New York and Pittsburgh, each with multiple kits. Aside from the sample itself, there is also a form with information including what the drug was thought to be, something like cocaine, fentanyl, as well as the symptoms the person experienced after taking the drug and what the substance looked like.

The tests take about 20 minutes in total but just minutes into the process, a chart is generated showing what chemicals are in substances.

“People don’t really know what they’re getting when they buy something,” Dasgupta said. “I think that is one of the key pieces of information we can provide.”

Since 2021, the lab has tested about 5,600 samples, identifying more than 270 different substances.

“The drug supply is something that seems complex at first but once you actually use science to understand it, there are clear patterns, both geographically and in substances,” he said.

For example, Dasgupta says his lab first began identifying xylazine in North Carolina drugs years ago, before law enforcement began sending out warnings.

He passes along that information to the health organizations where the samples came from. Carisa Collins-Caddle is a harm reductionist from Robeson County. She’s sent about a dozen samples to the lab. She says when she gets the information, she starts with notifying those who have substance use disorder.

“Knowing what is in our drug supply allows us to do a deeper dive and try to figure out the side effects of these drugs,” said Collins-Caddle, who has been in recovery for nine years.

She’s seen people change their using practices after getting back results.

“There’s a misconception that people who use drugs don’t care about their health, don’t care about their body and what they’re putting in their body,” she said. “But if you give them the opportunity to make more educated, safer decisions, they’ll do it every single time.”

In Dasgupta’s office, there is a shelf filled with empty sample boxes, all with notes on them, thanking the team for helping their communities gain insight into the supply.

In 2022, the lab received $380,000 in funding from the General Assembly’s pot of the opoid settlement funding. They’re currently working to bring in more scientists as the demand is growing. Dasgupta feels that incorporating the science with the advocacy and public health approach is a key piece to tackling the crisis.

“We’re trying to change that by giving people information faster so they can make better decisions about what they want to put in their bodies,” he said.

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