When former L.A. Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff tried to explain an uptick in deaths at raves, he found himself on a global journey researching fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid fifty times stronger than heroin. The result of that reporting, Fentanyl Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic, looks at the way the drug has spread across the United States and what can be done to stem the crisis. The project took him to drug-manufacturing labs in China, but also Denver, where he learned about DanceSafe, a harm-reduction group trying to prevent drug overdoses at raves.
Westword caught up with Westhoff ahead of his talk with Mitchell Gomez of DanceSafe at the Tattered Cover on Friday, September 27.
Westword: What inspired you to write this book?
Ben Westhoff: When I was at L.A. Weekly, I was writing about why so many people were dying at raves.
I used to be a raver myself back in the day, and people would take ecstasy, and no one would ever die of ecstasy. But now, in the 2010s, it seemed like at every rave, someone died, if not more than one person.
I found out that was because there were all these adulterants in ecstasy now, and it was not pure MDMA, so I wanted to find out what these new adulterants were, and it sent me down a rabbit hole. That’s how I learned about fentanyl, which is the most deadly of these new synthetic drugs made in China — and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.
You write about the Denver group DanceSafe. How did you come upon them?
In 2016, I came to Denver for DanceSafe’s conference. It was called their ‘fundrager.’ It was kind of like a party/fundraiser at the Church.
There I got to know DanceSafe, the people with DanceSafe, including Mitchell Gomez, and I started learning about what all these new drugs were. They’re called novel psychoactive substances: NPS.
What’s an NPS?
It’s basically any drug you haven’t heard of. It’s like all these brand-new synthetic chemicals coming out of China. Fentanyl is one example, and K2 and Spice — that’s another example.
What should people know about fentanyl?
Fentanyl is the biggest public-health problem of our time. It’s killing more people than die from gun violence. It’s killing more people than the height of the AIDS crisis. And it’s still getting worse. So I want to talk about how we got to this point and what we can do to help stem the tide.
Fentanyl hasn’t hit the West, really, nearly as hard as it has hit other parts of the country. It started off in New England, in the Northeast. Now it’s in the Midwest, where I live. But it’s coming west pretty quickly. It’s gonna get much worse before it gets better in places like Colorado.
What causes the spread?
It’s all about the heroin. Heroin west of the Mississippi has been black-tar heroin, whereas east of the Mississippi, it’s white-powder heroin. And fentanyl is also white powder, so it can be much more easily mixed with white-powder heroin. But now it’s starting to change. You’re starting to see more white-powder heroin in the West, and fentanyl is starting to be sold by itself, and for whatever reason, it’s starting to make its way west.
How easy is it to order fentanyl?
On the dark web, it’s extremely easy. It couldn’t be any easier. And they come right to your door through the mail service.
You infiltrated Chinese fentanyl organizations. How?
I just started off by emailing these Chinese chemical companies. They were very easy to find on the Internet. I pretended to be a drug dealer, and I asked if I could visit their labs, and they said yes.
They weren’t skeptical?
Well, once I arrived, they were skeptical. This one guy kept asking me if I was a journalist. And I kept saying no. And finally I convinced him to take me to his lab. It was on the outskirts of Shanghai, and I was expecting a seedy underground facility, but it was basically a suburban office park. It was really kind of on the up-and-up.
It was kind of like Breaking Bad. It had all of this industrial-sized glassware, and they were synthesizing these types of fentanyl, these types of K2, known as synthetic cannabinoids. They were doing it all right before my eyes. This was not a big company; they had maybe five or six employees. But the scope of how much they were making was really shocking, considering you only need two grains’ worth of fentanyl to overdose.
Are pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma connected to the fentanyl crisis?
Yes. The first wave of the opioid crisis was prescription pills, like OxyContin. People were over-prescribed these pills, and then often when their prescription ran out, they were hooked, so then many law-abiding citizens turned to street heroin. And that was the second wave of the opioid crisis. Nowadays, you can’t find any heroin that is pure most places; it’s all cut with fentanyl. And so fentanyl represents the third wave of the opioid crisis.
Talk about other Denver connections in your book.
I met this guy from the Bunk Police who was also based in Denver. His name was Adam Auctor.
What’s the Bunk Police?
The Bunk Police makes the world’s most sophisticated drug-checking kits. That’s at the heart of the book: How are we going to solve the opioid crisis, the fentanyl crisis? And one way to do that, to fight back, to fight the crisis, are these drug-checking kits. Fentanyl testing strips, in particular, help you determine if fentanyl is in your drugs.
What are other solutions?
The solutions part of the book is all about harm reduction and basically admitting that kids are always going to use drugs, and just trying to help them do so more safely.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.