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Fentanyl Took Their Friends’ Lives, So This Student Group Stepped In

Two young women sit behind a table on a college campus with a signs that say Team Awareness Combatting Overdose
Sophie Ignon & Olivia Espinoza distribute fentanyl test-strips for TACO USC.
(Courtesy of TACO USC)
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Fentanyl is killing a lot of people. There were 1,504 accidental overdose deaths in 2021 in L.A. County.

I hope that statistic grabbed you.

I’m going to be real; I’m not hearing enough people talk about it even though we’re in crisis mode right now. Public officials call it endemic. We’ve reported on the overdose deaths and emergencies that middle and high school students have suffered. Adults have also OD’d on the drug.

TACO Is Using Harm Reduction To Help

Before the fentanyl crisis stirred city and county officials to act, a group called TACO began practicing harm reduction to keep more people safe.

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TACO, which stands for Team Awareness Combatting Overdose, was started by a group of neuroscience students from USC when there weren't a lot of educational or harm reduction resources available. They were moved to act after a friend and fellow student died from an accidental fentanyl overdose. It is now a nonprofit that operates at several college/university campuses across the United States.

“Fentanyl isn't going away anytime soon, but the way we respond to it is what we can change,” says Isabella Gianatiempo, the 22-year-old co-founder of the group.

They focus on many things, including handing out Narcan, or naloxone — which can prevent overdoses if administered quickly — and test strips that folks can use before they partake in drugs to see what’s in them. But what really can save lives is education; online or in-person workshops about how to use Narcan and how the body is impacted by some of these drugs.

I interviewed B, a college student in L.A., a few weeks ago about his accidental overdose with fentanyl when he tried some cocaine. (I’m not using B’s real name to protect his identity.)

B says he woke up in an ambulance with double-vision and severe nausea. “It was absolutely awful,” he remembers. The last thing he remembers before that was feeling sick. His friend quickly administered Narcan that he received from TACO — that’s what saved his life.

B now works with TACO on educating young folks about resources and urging students, including his friends, to use test strips and warn others about the crisis.

What sets TACO apart from other campaigns or resource centers, organizers don’t shame folks for using drugs.

Gianatiempo, the founder of the group, says her goal isn’t to condemn or encourage drug use. “It's simply just making sure that people can make the best choices for themselves.”

Read more about the group in my producer Evan Jacoby’s story. You can also check out How To LA podcast episode #47 to hear more about B’s story wherever you get your podcasts. ALSO:

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PS: If you found this newsletter and episode helpful, please forward it to someone you know might need it or maybe start thinking about how you might talk to a loved one about the crisis.

We’re here to help curious Angelenos connect with others, discover the new, navigate the confusing, and even drive some change along the way.

As always, stay happy and healthy, folks. There’s more news below - just keep reading.

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  • *At LAist we will always bring you the news freely, but occasionally we do include links to other publications that may be behind a paywall. Thank you for understanding! 

    Wait... One More Thing

    Celebrating The Holidays With Food From All Over The World

    A small pastry sits on a white plate with a floral design next to a ceramic container filled with white cream.
    Minced pies from Britain
    (Chris Farias

    There’s always ONE thing I can look forward to during the holiday season: food. I think we can all agree on that?

    Well, we wanted to share a little bit of what our colleagues eat for their holiday traditions. Tamales, bibingka, British mince pie, and others are part of our list that capture the flavors of Angeleno communities. There’s savory, sweet, and some of these foods go year round and just add a special touch during the holidays.

    I learned something new reading this list. Like, British mince pie is like the PSL of Britain — “they’re only available for a limited time,” says Senior Editor Suzanne Levy.

    Check out our full list here.

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