Review | Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic – Ben Westhoff

About the Book

A deeply human story, Fentanyl, Inc. is the first deep-dive investigation of a hazardous and illicit industry that has created a worldwide epidemic, ravaging communities and overwhelming and confounding government agencies that are challenged to combat it. “A whole new crop of chemicals is radically changing the recreational drug landscape,” writes Ben Westhoff. “These are known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and they include replacements for known drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana. They are synthetic, made in a laboratory, and are much more potent than traditional drugs”–and all-too-often tragically lethal. Drugs like fentanyl, K2, and Spice–and those with arcane acronyms like 25i-NBOMe– were all originally conceived in legitimate laboratories for proper scientific and medicinal purposes. Their formulas were then hijacked and manufactured by rogue chemists, largely in China, who change their molecular structures to stay ahead of the law, making the drugs’ effects impossible to predict. Westhoff has infiltrated this shadowy world, becoming the first journalist to report from inside an illicit Chinese fentanyls lab and providing startling and original reporting on how China’s vast chemical industry operates, and how the Chinese government subsidizes it. He tracks down the little-known scientists who invented these drugs and inadvertently killed thousands, as well as a mysterious drug baron who turned the law upside down in his home country of New Zealand. Poignantly, Westhoff chronicles the lives of addicted users and dealers, families of victims, law enforcement officers, and underground drug awareness organizers in the U.S. and Europe. Together they represent the shocking and riveting full anatomy of a calamity we are just beginning to understand. From its depths, as Westhoff relates, are emerging new strategies that may provide essential long-term solutions to the drug crisis that has affected so many.

356 pages (hardcover)
Published September 3, 2019
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This book was a library loan.


I have a deep and abiding interest in the drug industry and how it is changing. Part of this is because, due to cancer, I cannot survive without a daily dose of artificial hormones anymore, and that means I have a very real dependence on an industry that is always changing. Part of this is also because globalization and scientific advancements have made the chemistry field a bit more accessible for individuals who enjoy playing the entrepreneur, and know how to tap into certain marketplaces that exist now in our more modern, digitized world.

The opioid problem in America is not news. It is spoken about all the time, and if you want to research opioid addiction, drug industry corruption and the like, there is likely an entire wing of your local library dedicated to the issue, and to its immediate resulting catastrophes. There is, however, precious little about Fentanyl. I mean, there is, but not a whole lot. Fentanyl is still kind of new, kind of unexplored, known, but not widely enough to have a billion books dedicated to its topic yet (though I think it’s just a matter of time). People in the know understand what a big deal it is, but with the focus on Percocet, drugs like Fentanyl get a mention, but almost never their own story. 

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 150 new illicit drugs were bought and sold between 1997 and 2010. Another 150 appeared in just the next three years, and since then, in some years as many as 100 new chemicals have appeared, with synthetic cannabinoids especially common.

Fentanyl, Inc. is a different sort of book than I was expecting. First, I thought it would be only about Fentanyl, but it’s really is about a lot more than that. Fentanyl is really the point from which the rest of the book breaks off. This is the throbbing heart around which the rest of the reporting circles. 

A lot of this book is about, for lack of a better term, designer drugs. Homebrewed chemists sit in their labs and think up new ways to make better highs. It’s become nearly impossible to prosecute, and there are so many new and fancy drugs appearing on the marketplace that I’d imagine it is extremely difficult to track all of them down to the source, the chemists, the kingpins, the salesmen and women.

In addition to fentanyl, a whole new generation of chemicals is radically changing the recreational drug landscape. These are known as novel psychoactive substances (NPS), and they include replacements for known drugs like ecstasy, LSD, and marijuana, as well as heroin. These new drugs aren’t grown in a field—or grown at all. They are synthetic, made in a laboratory. There’s nothing natural about them, and they are much more potent than traditional drugs. 

Fentanyl is a potent drug. It delivers more of a high than heroin, and other opioids like Oxy or Percocet. This makes it incredibly desirable for people who are looking for a high. Just pop a pill, and there you go. That being said, it’s incredibly easy to overdose. The drug overwhelms your system in miniscule amounts, which means that there’s been an absolutely surreal wave of Fentanyl-related deaths swamping the United States in recent years. 

Driven by fentanyl, overdose drug deaths are, by the time of this book’s publication, for the first time killing more Americans under fifty-five than anything else—more than gun homicides and more than even AIDS during the peak years of the crisis. As of 2017, Americans were statistically more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.

However, it really goes further than that, and this is perhaps where the book interested me the most. Instead of a real in-depth discussion about Fentanyl, the author uses Fentanyl as a jumping-off point for other illicit drugs that are entering the marketplace, such as K2, Spice, an offshoot of some Ecstasy that someone in New Zealand created, and so much more. Then, Westhoff not only discusses the evolution of these drugs and how they came to be, but also shows the social impact, as well as personal ones. 

Westhoff manages to get an inside view on a lot of the issues that surround this wave of NPS drugs hitting the world marketplace right now, from laboratories in the United States, to the Dark Web where a lot of this stuff is sold, and even into chemical labs in China, which are absolutely booming and are busily churning out new NPS drugs at a shockingly rapid pace. Not only have the drugs that are available changed, but the ability to prosecute them has been made far more difficult as well. 

“In recent years, some of the biggest new drug kingpins can’t be successfully prosecuted. The Pablo Escobars of today are coming out of China, and they don’t have to worry about being imprisoned by their government. They can operate free and in the clear, within the boundaries of their country’s own laws. Whenever a deadly new drug is made illegal in China, manufacturers simply tweak its chemical structure and start producing a new drug that is still legal. Many fentanyl analogues and cannabinoids have been made this way.” 

That’s not even touching on the issue that so many of these drugs aren’t regulated, so you have people cutting Fentanyl with heroin, or rat poison, or baking powder, or whatever else. They make pills, but you don’t know what you’re actually getting in each pill, and it’s so terribly easy to overdose. Someone’s ratio of this-and-that might change from one batch to the next. People are, very truthfully, taking their own lives in their hands, and it’s absolutely terrifying to think of just how risky and dangerous this all is. The added remove from it, via the internet and what have you, allows a lot of people to operate on a less personal level, feel less responsibility and remorse for the lives they impact so dramatically. It mixes together to create a rather toxic stew. 

That dealers would kill off their own clients may seem counterintuitive. “It brings more business,” said Detective Ricardo Franklin, of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Bureau of Drug Enforcement. “Sure, it kills more people, but from a user standpoint, they’re not thinking about the death. When they hear someone OD’d, they think it must be an amazing high.

And while this is illuminating in the extreme, Westhoff balances all of this out with very human stories. Accidental overdoses, addicts, stories from those who have directly been touched by this new wave of drugs hitting the world marketplace. The people who are trying to fight all of this, from investigators to family members and larger communities. The human element seemed to balance everything else out for me. 

Westhoff went all out with his journalism and research, attempting, among other things, to infiltrate the primary Fentanyl supplier to the United States, while in China. It’s this kind of gung-ho reporting that often had me thinking, “this guy is out of his mind” mixed with “wow, the world really needs more journalists willing to go to bat for their stories like this guy.” It also made this book stand out. The author’s desire to uncover everything he’s learned, and distill it for his audience is palpable. Not only is the topic convoluted and interesting, but Westhoff’s reporting made it exciting, and he had a true knack for making difficult topics come to life in an understandable way for his readers. 

This book is heavy on facts, which I tend to enjoy. Some of the chemical jargon went a bit over my head, but I’m not a chemist, so I expected that. It also didn’t take up most of the book and it was pretty easy to overlook. I did, however, find this book to be one of the more interesting ones on the changing, and globalized new drug market. The scientific information, mixed with personal and political background and heavy-hitting interest stories that pepper the narrative make Fentanyl, Inc., in my opinion, one of the best on the topic I’ve read. 

Reality truly is stranger than fiction.

5/5 stars

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