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Study co-authored by Brandeis professor finds benefits of drug checking technology

Brandeis professor from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management Traci C. Green recently co-authored a study investigating the benefits of “drug checking” programs. These programs refer to the analysis of illegal drugs and drugs that are not acquired from a pharmacy that people may use recreationally, according to the article. There are numerous methods to employ drug checking, all with the ultimate goal of reducing the prevalence of overdoses and other health detriments associated with increasingly contaminated drug supplies. 

Jennifer Carroll, an assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University and first author of a paper on the study, explains that “drug checking [methods] with advanced technologies, such as spectrometers, have been very effective at preventing drug overdoses in other countries.”

However, the U.S. has not adopted drug checking practices as widely as other countries. The researchers therefore wanted to investigate the obstacles that were in the way of implementing a drug checking program in the U.S.. Their secondary goal was to be able to “document the individual and community health benefits of getting the program off the ground.”

The researchers were collaborating with an organization called Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Educated Syringe Exchange (AHOPE) that is based in Boston, MA. This organization was implementing fentanyl strips along with mobile spectrometers in order to detect trace amounts of drugs from containers. 

The study lasted for about 22 months, where the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with the staff from the program as well as the people participating in the syringe exchange program.

Carroll asserts that, ““In addition to helping reduce drug overdoses, we found that there are also other public health benefits. For one thing, we found that demand for drug checking services was very high. People who don’t normally come into contact with syringe exchanges, such as middle-class folks who use drugs, began coming to AHOPE in order to get their drugs checked. We also found that drug distributors came to the program to check their drugs. In some instances, when high levels of fentanyl were found, distributors recut their drugs to reduce the potency to better protect their clients. In at least one case, a supplier threw out a batch of drugs due to the presence of unexpected contaminants.”

The researchers found that Massachusetts public health law concerning the use of illegal drugs was counterintuitive to the demonstrated needs of people experiencing drug addiction.

“Essentially, in a program designed to improve public health and safety, we found multiple instances in which law enforcement used its discretion to prioritize the enforcement of misdemeanor drug possession even when it hurt vital overdose prevention efforts. Even a shift to being impartial to program workers would be a step in the right direction,” Carroll says.

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