A deeply human story, Fentanyl Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic 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 one step ahead of the law, making the drugs’ effects impossible to predict.
Westhoff 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. Westhoff is the first journalist to infiltrate shady factories in China from which these drugs emanate, providing startling and original reporting on how China’s vast chemical industry operates, and how the Chinese government subsidizes it. Poignantly, he 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. Yet, as Westhoff relates, new strategies are emerging that may provide essential long-term solutions to the drug crisis that has affected so many.
Presented in partnership with the Wisconsin Science Festival.
Ben Westhoff is an award-winning investigative reporter and the author of Original Gangstas on the birth of West Coast rap and Dirty South on the southern rappers who re-invented hip-hop. He has written about culture, drugs, and corruption in the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis.