On the edge of Shanghai, men wearing balaclavas meet journalist Ben Westhoff at sunset. He’s blindfolded, pushed into a pickup truck, and driven out into the Chinese jungle. When the blindfold is removed, Westhoff sees men patrolling catwalks high above a factory floor, automatic weapons hanging from shoulder straps. Below them, ragtag chemists busily tend to vials and beakers in which fentanyl precursors boil. In this remote corner of the Chinese countryside, Westhoff has found the source of America’s “opioid epidemic.”
Fentanyl, Inc: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic (Grove Atlantic, September 2019) is the first book dedicated to the “third wave” of the overdose crisis, which claimed an estimated 68,000 lives in the US last year.
Author Ben Westhoff really does travel to China to infiltrate groups responsible for producing some—though by no means all—of the dangerous synthetic drugs that now dominate the crisis. But what he finds there is a far cry from Scarface.
“Two floors of the facility were crammed with salespeople, perhaps two or three hundred, most in front of desktop computers in cubicles that were red and gray on one floor, green and gray on another,” the book reads. “It was a bustling place, with cold-calling, deals being struck, and money being made. Salespeople offered to speak with potential customers on just about any app or platform they desired, fitting for a company that calls itself ‘the first e-commerce conglomerate in the chemical industry.’”
Behind fentanyl’s rise, there are no guns or street gangs—at least not at the top of the pyramid. Instead, there are corporations, and executives who insist their operations are perfectly legal.
“Just a normal day at the office. But this company was selling fentanyl precursors and, as far as I can tell, selling more than any other company in the world.”
These companies employ university graduates with chemistry degrees and pay them to cook both fentanyl precursors and the finished product. Then a vast sales team connects with customers in America, often on the dark web but just as often through regular websites with contact information clearly posted. When a deal is struck, a package is put in the mail and, a few days later, arrives on a doorstep in the United States.
Fentanyl, Inc makes clear that the drug war is over. America is still fighting but, without a doubt, has lost. Private companies are replacing the mafia. Powerful synthetics like methamphetamine and fentanyl are supplanting their weaker organic predecessors, cocaine and heroin. Drugs are cheaper, easier to get, and more potent than ever before.
After a tour of the fentanyl manufacturer’s sales floor and production facilities—located in the bustling city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province, Central China—Westoff, posing as a would-be purchaser, introduces us to the 2019 version of the cartel kingpin.
“Dowson [Li] said goodbye, repeating his recommendations for tourist spots,” Westhoff writes of the end of his visit. “It was still raining, and he insisted that I take his umbrella …. I soon stopped contacting Dowson, and he never pressed me about the order we discussed. Months after my trip when I was back home, however, he sent me a Skype message on my birthday with a cake emoji.”
In a telephone interview, Westhoff confirmed he was surprised by what he found in China.
“There were floors of salespeople working in cubicles,” he emphasized. “They are all recent college graduates in their 20s. It looked like a Western sales floor, with little plants on employees’ desks. It was just a normal day at the office, but this company was selling fentanyl precursors and, as far as I can tell, selling more of them than any other company in the world. And it was a normal office job for them.”
Fentanyl, Inc not only reveals the contemporary synthetic-drug industry that today is booming in China. The first third of the book is an informative and highly-entertaining story about the synthetic drugs that came before fentanyl. Westhoff recounts the developments of LSD, MDMA and other lesser-known substances such as mephedrone, BZP and the once-widely-available synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018.
He also introduces us to larger-than-life characters from the world of synthetic drugs, including Orange Sunshine acid wizard Nick Sand, New Zealand “legal-highs” pioneer Matthew Bowden and, of course, PiHKAL authors Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin and Ann Shulgin.
From there, Westhoff takes us into the dark web, to massive online drug markets such as the Silk Road and AlphaBay (shut down in 2013 and 2017, respectively), and the many similar sites that have since popped up to replace them.
“With the dark-web dealers, it was surprisingly easy,” Westhoff told Filter. “It’s easy to contact them through their dark-web profiles and different [online] markets. I told them that I was a journalist and a lot of people were really happy to talk.”
The days of drug kingpins with names like El Patron and Chapo are coming to an end. In Fentanyl, Inc, the dark-web dealers Westhoff meets use the less-catchy aliases of “high_as_fxck_GER,” “Desifelay1000” and “U4IA.” They don’t live in seaside villas; they’re your next-door neighbors. Their products don’t move through tunnels under the US-Mexico border; they arrive in the mail courtesy of the US Postal Service.
“Prohibition has created a situation where fentanyl makes the most sense from the perspective of a dealer.”
Setting Fentanyl, Inc apart from most other books that focus on the supply-side of illegal drugs, Westhoff smartly avoids pro-drug-war narratives that push for an intensified law-and-order response to the proliferation of more potent synthetic drugs.
Most people who use opioids do not want fentanyl, despite its being the strongest opioid widely available. People still want heroin, or other less potent opioids like OxyContin. But prohibition has created a situation where it is fentanyl that makes the most sense from the perspective of a dealer.
Compared to heroin, synthetic fentanyl is easier to produce, less risky to transport (because of its reduced bulk), and insanely more profitable. It’s a phenomenon known as the “Iron law of Prohibition.” The War on Drugs and misguided law enforcement efforts have not stemmed the spread of fentanyl, but instead have contributed to its takeover, Westhoff carefully explains in Fentanyl, Inc.
“That’s the main point of the book, in a way,” he said. “We empower the cartels through the drug war.”
It’s therefore the demand side of illegal-drug markets on which authorities must focus resources if North America’s overdose crisis is ever to come to an end, Westhoff said.
“People are always going to find a way to get their drugs,” he explained. “Drugs are always going to find a way. And so we need to focus on making people less vulnerable to those drugs, educating people about what these new drugs are, helping people beat their addiction, or, at worst, safely maintaining their addiction.”
Book cover courtesy of Ben Westhoff/Grove Atlantic.