Ben Westhoff is a journalist whose new book, Fentanyl Inc, is a portrait of the massive Chinese synthetic-drug industry. Westhoff got access to these labs, which he was only able to do by posing as a potential buyer. We found the book and his (perhaps extremely reckless) efforts to report it fascinating, so asked him to retell how he did it.
In early 2017, when I began investigating China’s role in the opioid crisis, fentanyl had begun killing more Americans annually than any drug in history, and synthetic cannabinoids like K2 were displacing marijuana and causing massive overdose outbreaks.
To really understand the epidemic, I needed to go to China, but I didn’t speak Chinese. Other journalists said I needed a “fixer,” but I didn’t know where to find one. “My college roommate lived in Shanghai for years with her husband,” said my friend Dan, unhelpfully. “They would know some people.”
I realized I’d have to imitate a drug buyer. To get started I simply googled “Buy Drugs In China,” which led to hundreds of pages for Chinese pharmaceutical companies. Somewhat professional looking, written in both English and Chinese, they featured stock photos of smiling lab scientists in sparkling lab facilities. They offered thousands of chemicals, including new drugs that were legal to use recreationally in China but scheduled in the U.S.
I created a phony email address and began firing off messages to salespeople. “Hello, I wish to chat about your chemicals,” I wrote, adding that I was available on Skype. “Thank you!”
I received responses and soon began getting up at 4 am to chat with salespeople finishing up their workdays in cities like Shenzhen or Wuhan. Sitting before my laptop in the dark, Earl Grey mug warming my fingers, I took on the persona of “Johnny Webster,” a 20-something bro who looked like he’d be into mind expansion and had an avatar picture to match.
I asked them about the chemicals and the pricing, and they responded in pretty good English. “How much amount do you need?” asked a salesman named Jackie Jiang working for a Wuhan company called Health222chem, after I said I was interested in a drug called BUC-3. This was an obscure opioid; the company sold it because it had similar effects to fentanyl, but was still legal in China. “100g BUC-3 $900. We accept Bitcoin.”
I never bought anything, but with some salespeople I’d chat for hours, trying to understand how one got involved in the business of selling destructive drugs on a global scale. One 23-year-old recent college graduate who’d studied “airline services” told me she enjoyed “cheerful or jazz” music and going out for drinks with her friends. I asked if she was worried her clients would use the fentanyl precursors she sold to make drugs that would kill people. “Many of my clients will not tell me the real purpose of their purchase,” she said. Quite a few salespeople claimed not to know what fentanyl was, which is plausible since the drug is not much abused in China.
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I also spoke with owners of black- and gray-market chemical companies, some of whom said they’d be willing to show me their labs. Soon, I began connecting with translators and planning my trip.
This was starting to get real. I took comfort in the fact that guns are uncommon in China and these operations are not run by cartels or gangs, but rather businesspeople focused solely on making money. “They’re not going to kidnap you or kill you, but it’s all a risk,” said Mike Power, an English journalist who’s had some harrowing Chinese drug adventures himself. That didn’t mean I still wasn’t freaking out. I mean, I was 40. I should have known better than this.
But this story that was bigger than I. The new drug epidemic was going global, and yet very few people understood how these operations functioned. No journalist had ever been inside a Chinese fentanyl lab.
That’s how I was able to talk myself into it, despite my wife's (quite reasonable) concerns, like that I could be detained in China, at a time when US-China relations were deteriorating. Fuck it, I thought. Let’s go.
I took comfort in the fact that guns are uncommon in China and these operations are not run by cartels or gangs, but rather businesspeople focused solely on making money.
Wuhan is a metropolis of 11 million people, a chemical manufacturing center in central China that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. I arrived there just hours before 2018 began. My translator Jada and her mother picked me up, and I watched the city’s futuristic architecture and never-ending clusters of super-tall apartment buildings unfurl through the smog.
They dropped me off at my hotel, where the clerk photocopied my passport. Since my American cell plan wouldn’t work, I’d had to rent a government-monitored phone. Honestly, I was more afraid of imprisonment than execution by drug lord. Paranoia washed over me as I deadbolted my hotel room door. Midnight on Dec 31 is not as big a deal in China, but people were partying; someone knocked on my door, and someone called my room phone. I didn’t answer.
The next morning, after the best breakfast of my life (watermelon squares, kidney beans, bok choy, and a donut), Jada’s mom drove us to Wuhan’s outskirts, where we met a teenage drug dealer and his girlfriend. He sold LSD replacements called N-Bombs and other drugs on sites like Baidu. We had hot pot; I skipped the pig brain. Dealing drugs is ballsy in China, where small offenses can lead to long incarcerations, even death. But he wasn’t worried about selling these new drugs. “The police are more preoccupied with meth,” he said.
On the drive back I texted a distributor who called himself Mike_Health205, who sold MDMA, fake ecstasy, and fentanyl analogues. I said I wanted to order something called 4CL-PVP—an ecstasy substitute that was unscheduled in China—but first wanted to see his factory, “to make sure your company is trustworthy and has quality standards,” I wrote. He wouldn’t tell me the lab’s location, but said his partner Du would meet me in a big Wuhan mall, and we could drive over together. So that’s how I ended up spending an hour waiting outside the damn Gucci store, with Du standing me up. It’s possible there was a communication breakdown, but I suspect he laid eyes on me and suspected I was a narc. Which, of course, I was.
While in Wuhan I had more conversations, and even visits, with salespeople, some of which were interesting, but no one would show me their lab. At this point, I was worried I would leave China without actually observing a lab in action, which is why I’d come to the country in the first place.
I had another promising lead, however, and so the next day Jada and I got on a bullet train to Shanghai.
It’s possible there was a communication breakdown, but I suspect he laid eyes on me and suspected I was a narc. Which, of course, I was.
After checking into a youth hostel, we arrived to Shanghai’s Nanchen Road subway station in the pouring rain. That’s where a lab owner whom I'll call D asked me to meet him, and from there we would go to his office to talk, he said. I assumed this meant on foot, and so Jada stood close by with her umbrella (but not too close), planning to follow behind at a safe distance. Jada knew the riskiness of this endeavor, but D had no idea Jada (or anyone else) was with me.
D pulled up in a small Chevy, however, so our plan was foiled. I gulped and climbed in. Behind the wheel was a beefy guy D introduced as his “driver;” I worried he could also be the operation’s muscle.
D co-owns a company called Chemsky, which on its website says it makes chemicals “for major pharmaceutical and biotech companies worldwide” including Johnson & Johnson, though their company spokesman told me this is baloney. Really, Chemsky specializes in synthetic cannabinoids, fentanyl analogues, synthetic cathinones, novel benzodiazepines, and other new drugs with unpronounceable names like AB-CHFUPYCA. I knew this because, not long after we first connected over email in October, 2017, D had emailed me an Excel spreadsheet of their products. Perhaps they also sold legit pharmaceuticals, but they mainly plied recreational drugs preferred by Westerners that hadn’t yet been banned in China.
After exchanging emails we’d chatted over Skype, on and off for a couple of months, and D said he’d be happy to show me his lab. Thirty-eight, with a round face, in person he was friendly, with an inquisitive manner and a decent command of English. When we weren’t talking about drugs he rambled on about all manner of topics, and I recorded our conversation on my phone, which was tucked into my rain jacket pocket. “The U.S. and Canada are both great countries,” he said at one point. “And Germany. Japan is a great country. But there was wars between China and Japanese, so Chinese don’t like Japanese very much. The Korean War was a mistake. The China government should not have helped the North Korea. The Chinese government refused to accept the mistake.”
Behind the wheel was a beefy guy D introduced as his “driver;” I worried he could also be the operation’s muscle.
His office was actually his apartment, it turned out, a sleek flat on the top floor of a luxury high-rise in a gated community. As we sat down in his office, we began talking about the various chemicals he sold. He asked me what I was interested in; I muttered something about fentanyl analogues in reply. At one point he looked me in the eye.
“We are afraid that a reporter come to our lab, to our country, to find out why we synthesize these chemicals, or why we sell these chemicals to your country,” he said. “To let your people’s health down. To harm your country’s people. So, I wonder whether I should take you to our lab.”
I denied I was a reporter, but he was clearly skeptical. He decided to feel me out more over lunch. The driver picked us up in the Chevy and took us to a local restaurant near Shanghai University. I discreetly texted Jada our location, as best as I could make it out.
Over a lunch of pork, for him, and scrambled eggs with zucchini squash, for me, he asked about my specific reason for meeting him. I said it was at the behest of a friend from the States who was a drug distributor. He was interested in making bulk purchases of fentanyl analogues and other chemicals, and had asked me to visit D’s lab. If, according to my assessment, the lab had high enough quality standards, then my friend would go into business with him.
“Why didn’t he come himself?” D said.
“Because I was already planning to come to China, to visit a friend,” I said, improvising.
“A friend? Where?”
“In Wuhan,” I said.
“I’m from Wuhan! What part of Wuhan?”
Pretending not to understand what he was saying, I excused myself to use the restroom. When I returned, we got on to something else, and somehow, by the time lunch was over, he had decided that I passed muster.
Soon we were speeding down a Shanghai interstate in the Chevy. The lab, D said, was located in the “countryside.” My heart beat fast. The car had no seatbelt.
I tried to keep track of where we were going, surreptitiously texting the names of street exits and landmarks to Jada, in case something went horribly wrong. “Shangzhong Road Tunnel,” I typed, and “Sanlu Highway.” At one point I just typed, “Headed west I think.” But in all honesty I had no idea where we were. The GPS on my phone wasn’t functioning, the signs were mostly in Mandarin.
D sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as we exited off the interstate. We had driven about a half hour south of Shanghai’s center. The “countryside” description didn’t seem fitting; bare plots of land littered with garbage sat adjacent to clusters of colossal high-rises.
We eventually pulled into the parking lot of an office park, ringed by boxy, anonymous buildings a few stories high. A fountain sat in the middle. There was no way to tell, from the outside, that the building we were about to enter housed not a mail-processing plant or a grocery chain warehouse but a drug laboratory.
“Our lab is in here. We have arrived, man!” D said, adding that I was not permitted to take pictures.
We exited the car; the driver stayed in his seat. I kept my smartphone recording inside my rain jacket, and, since I couldn’t take notes I muttered my observations aloud, saying things like: “This building seems of fairly recent construction, the interior paint is blue and gray, and the stairwells smell of concrete.” D either didn’t notice this or just thought I was a weirdo. He said they had been at the facility for five years. He led me up two flights of stairs, ducking in for a quick word with someone in a room full of what looked like salespeople. The third floor harbored the laboratory—actually a series of lab rooms with chemical-processing equipment. Almost all of the windows were open, but the frigid wind wasn’t enough to dissipate the strong chemical smell.
D introduced me to his partner, whose name I didn’t catch. Though D himself seemed like a guy who would have been popular in school, his partner resembled a stereotypical science nerd, with broad gum lines and a slightly embarrassed manner. He was thirty and, like D, wore glasses.
“We were at the same school, but not the same grade, in Shanghai,” D said. “He also liked the cannabinoid business. So we worked together.”
His partner seemed suspicious of me but didn’t object as D showed off the facilities, which consisted of about a dozen rooms. Most were labs, full of the types of glassware and equipment that anyone who took high school chemistry would be familiar with: beakers, tubes, funnels, scales, and industrial-scale machines whose functions weren’t immediately clear. Black lab tables sat in the rooms’ centers, and fume hoods lined the walls. One machine, about six feet high, was used for drying the chemicals, D explained. Posted signs, in both Chinese and English, warned the chemists to always wear gloves and protective eyewear.
The facilities might not have passed muster at some American academic or industry labs. Much of the equipment was rusting, and some of the glassware was dirty or coated with yellowing aluminum foil that was peeling off. “We have bought several older machines from other chemists, because it’s cheap,” D apologized. That said, the facilities didn’t seem unsafe. There was a level of professionalism.
“I seldom synthesize now, but five years ago, I synthesized,” D said, referencing the work of chemical manufacture. “I did the reaction. But the smell is bad when you synthesize.” His partner, along with the four chemists they had on staff, did the bulk of the heavy-lifting in the lab these days. I didn’t see anyone actively monitoring the equipment, but some of the machines were running. In the first room, a viscous, yellow, custardy-looking compound in an oversize, round-bottomed flask was being stirred by a mechanical arm. It looked to be, perhaps, three or four gallons of mixture. Next to it whirred an identical machine, stirring an identical mixture.
Much of the equipment was rusting, and some of the glassware was dirty or coated with yellowing aluminum foil that was peeling off.
“This is ‘BUF’,” D said, referring to benzoylfentanyl, an obscure fentanyl analogue that the company sold for $2400 per kilogram. It had never been sold as a medical drug, and was synthesized by Chemsky solely for recreational purposes. “When this is finished we will get one kilo. We wonder if the Chinese will ban this, so we do not make too much stock. When it becomes a banned item, we will throw out the stock.”
At the time BUF was a Schedule 1 compound in the U.S. but legal in China. Like other fentanyl analogues, BUF had similar effects to fentanyl (which was long ago banned in China), but its chemical structure was just different enough that companies like Chemsky could legally sell it. This was a cat-and-mouse game where China banned fentanyl analogues one by one, and then chemists tweaked the formulas just slightly to make new, legal compounds, but the game finally ended on May 1, 2019 when China “blanket banned” all fentanyl analogues, including ones that hadn’t yet been created.
As we entered the next lab room at the facility, I could hardly believe my eyes. D covered his mouth and nose with his jacket to block fumes wafting from a yellow powder lying in big piles on the lab station island.
In the movie Scarface, near the end, Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, powder on his lapel, sits at his desk before heaps of cocaine. That was child’s play compared to this. The sheer volume had to be enough to get entire small countries high. The piles of compound were on sheets of aluminum foil, perhaps for drying; more mounds were on the floor, and small barrels were filled with one-kilogram ziplock bags of the substance.
“5F-ADB,” D said, identifying the yellow chemical, a synthetic cannabinoid that they sold for $1,000 per kilogram. This drug was popular in the Netherlands, he claimed. Presumably the buyers—or someone else further along the supply chain—would dissolve the chemicals in a solvent and spray them onto dried plant matter for smoking.
The sheer volume had to be enough to get entire small countries high.
In the next room he showed off the equipment used for manufacturing the cannabinoid, huge, glass drums suspended in the air, each holding maybe twenty gallons. He pointed to a cardboard box filled with bags of a different compound, white with an orange tint. “These are 5F-MDMB-2201. It’s famous in Russia. Russian customers like this.” It hadn’t caught on much further west, however, and curious Internet commentators complained about a dearth of available information. “It’s highly potent, showing activity in sub-milligram dosages,” wrote someone on Drugs-Forum.com. “Apparently this one becomes very intense and sometimes difficult and scary for the cannabinoid-naive or even more experienced individuals.”
The tour finished, we sat down at a table in a small, unadorned conference room. Another man came in with a plastic bag full of water bottles and Nescafe cans, the latter of which were, to D’s delight, warm. The man left the room and closed the door. D, his partner, and I popped open our cans of sugary coffee and made more small talk. Finally, D got down to business.
“We will find chemicals, new or old, that are suitable for U.S.A. The work will be done by you and your workmate,” he said, pausing to translate for his partner. “What quantity?”
“Maybe ten kilograms for some things, one kilogram for other things,” I said, again improvising.
They looked dubious. Then I remembered that, with some of these chemicals, one needed less than a grain of rice’s worth to get high. “The ten kilograms per month is a lot of work,” D said.
“I will speak with my partner,” I said, “and then we will speak again.”
This seemed to satisfy them. “So, any questions? If you don’t have any questions, we’re done.”
We walked outside to the hallway and waited for the elevator. After a few minutes it was still stuck on a floor labeled “-1,” so we took the stairs down. The beefy driver had the Chevy ready to go. While he drove us back to Shanghai, from the back seat I took notes about the visit and e-mailed them to myself. We wove back into the city center, and they dropped me off the Bund Hotel. I was actually staying at a youth hostel, but I’d told them this hotel just to be safe.
Before saying goodbye, D offered some recommendations for tourist spots. It was still raining, and he insisted that I take his umbrella. I watched the Chevy pull away, took a deep breath, and texted Jada that I was OK. Back at the youth hostel, I bought the first train ticket out of town, saying goodbye to Jada and spending a week in Beijing. The odds of D realizing I was a journalist and tracking me down were probably slim, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
I soon stopped contacting him, 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.
Ben Westhoff is the author of Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic
This article originally appeared on VICE US.