A St. Louis author went to China to uncover the secret roots of fentanyl

In Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic, reporter Ben Westhoff surveys the wide swath of death cut by the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The St. Louis-based author’s research took him from the L.A. rave scene to the outskirts of Shanghai, where Westhoff visited a Chinese drug lab, posing as a potential customer.

At 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times the potency of morphine, two milligrams of fentanyl, similar in appearance to two or three grains of salt, is enough to lay most people in their graves. In 2017, the drug was responsible for 28,000 deaths of Americans, one of them the accidental overdose of rocker Tom Petty.

As Westhoff explained to 435 Magazine in a recent interview, the fentanyl threat continues to metastasize as hundreds of new drugs in the same class — known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) — are created to mimic the effects of common street drugs, their molecular structure tweaked slightly, making them ever more lethal.

Originally from Minnesota, Westhoff studied philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and lived in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles before moving back to St. Louis. Part of his investigation involved roaming sketchy St. Louis streets and visiting a “shooting gallery,” where addicts go to get high and pass out, located at the abandoned Magic Chef stove factory in the city’s Hill neighborhood.

435: Your last book, Original Gangstas, was about West Coast rap and seems a far cry from Fentanyl, Inc. How did you go from gangster rap to synthetic opioids?

Westhoff: I was the LA Weekly music editor, and I was looking into why so many people were dying at raves. I found out that what the ecstasy people were supposedly dying from was not pure ecstasy. It was being cut with all these new drugs. So I went down the rabbit hole to find out what these new drugs were. They’re all made in China, and fentanyl is the deadliest of them all.

435: Were you surprised at how openly fentanyl is manufactured in China?

I was expecting an underground drug lab type of thing, but these are business people. They’re not a criminal organization. They are operating within the letter of [Chinese] law.

435: Other than the production of fentanyl for legitimate medical purposes, why does China allow the production of it and other copycat drugs?

China has big problems with heroin and meth and ketamine and drugs like that, but fentanyl hasn’t really caused many overdose deaths in their population. That’s why a lot of people think they are not cracking down on this drug in particular.

435: Why are so many street drugs cut with fentanyl — cocaine, for instance?

Fentanyl is cheaper. And I don’t think anyone in this country knows what real cocaine is like. It’s always been cut with something, and I think most people, as long as they’re getting high, tend not to know or even probably care.

435: Fentanyl is a downer, but cocaine is an upper. That seems counterintuitive.

Yeah, but fentanyl still gives you that narcotic druggy feeling. So much cocaine is cut with fentanyl that it’s driving up the death rate. The days of being able to go to a party and someone’s got some cocaine and just casually sniffing it, I think those days are over because it’d be laced with fentanyl.

435: Other drugs are often laced with it too, such as ecstasy, heroin and pills made to look like actual pharmaceuticals. Wasn’t this a factor in Prince’s death?

Prince thought he was taking [Vicodin], but it was a fake pill made with fentanyl. I definitely don’t think Prince was looking for fentanyl. He was a guy in his sixties doing splits every night on stage. And I’m sure he had plenty of pain.

435: Do you believe fentanyl should be decriminalized?

Decriminalization appeals to me in a lot of ways. [Policymakers] talk about cracking down on the dealers and kind of going less harsh on the users. But in actuality, those are often the same people. Often a dealer started selling because he or she is addicted and needs to feed their habit. Just putting people in jail and not giving them treatment, there’s a huge recidivism rate. So decriminalization is something I think may have its merits.

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