Health & Medicine

These strips detect a deadly drug. But users still shoot up

Hurley Merical, 69, left, gives Aliceon Beltrani, 39, a fentanyl test strip at SANE (Safer Alternatives through Networking & Education) in Sacramento on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. She says she has used the strips three times and found one positive result.
Hurley Merical, 69, left, gives Aliceon Beltrani, 39, a fentanyl test strip at SANE (Safer Alternatives through Networking & Education) in Sacramento on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. She says she has used the strips three times and found one positive result. rbyer@sacbee.com

Aliceon Beltrani mixed water and drugs, dipped a test strip in and waited for the results.

The first time, a negative test meant her drugs were safe to use. On another occasion, she tested another stash of drugs, but the results weren’t clear. A third stash tested positive – her methamphetamine was laced with fentanyl.

“You can’t smell (fentanyl), you can’t see it being burned a certain way,” Beltrani said, who uses heroin and methamphetamine. “It’s like a chameleon.”

Beltrani is a regular visitor at a syringe exchange to get test strips and clean needles from Safer Alternatives through Networking and Education. The south Sacramento organization known as SANE has been handing out the strips out to drug users since late last year.

The effort was spurred nearly two years ago, after a rash of fentanyl-laced pills hit the streets. In 2016, there were 234 fentanyl overdose deaths in California, according to the state public health opioid dashboard. Thirteen of those deaths were in Sacramento County.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. When fentanyl is mixed with drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine or other opioids, users can overdose on it without even knowing it’s there.

“There’s been a big interest in the strips,” said Rachel Anderson, executive director of SANE.

A recent study shows that the low-cost testing strips – similar to a home pregnancy test – detected the smallest amounts of fentanyl (0.125 micrograms/ml) and were the most accurate at detecting the presence or absence of fentanyl,” according to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For most drug users, the presence of fentanyl in their stash is not a deterrent to using, Anderson said.

“It’s like a flavor change, if you will. In the using community, it’s good news, it adds to the potency. If (fentanyl) does show up, they’ll split their dose, use half than what they would normally do until they know the potency.”

“Better two holes in your arm than one in the ground,” she said.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports a 79 percent increase in synthetic opioid deaths, from 5,343 in 2014 to 9,580 in 2015.

Syringe exchange programs in 14 California counties are now carrying the testing strips, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Beltrani believes the program will help save the lives of users – including her own.

“I’m grateful for that because it lets me know what I’m putting in my body,” Beltrani said.

Natasha Butler says on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, her 28-year-old son Jerome Butler died after taking what he believed was a Norco pill given to him by a friend. The pill is believed to have contained the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Butler is on

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM

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