© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis Author Ben Westhoff Tackles 'Fentanyl, Inc.'

August 29, 2019 Ben Westhoff
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Fentanyl has become an international scourge. It’s been blamed for a spike in drug overdose deaths in Missouri as well as around the world. It’s both contaminated many recreational drugs and become a substitute for heroin in many American cities. And yet the Chinese factory responsible for manufacturing most of its precursors has received funding and lucrative tax breaks from the Chinese government.

Through years of research, St. Louis journalist Ben Westhoff has become one of the foremost experts into the international fentanyl trade. On Thursday, he joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about his new book, “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.” Westhoff discussed how his investigation followed the drug from its manufacture in China to the streets of St. Louis – and the terrible impact that synthetic, laboratory-made drugs are having on communities around the world.

Fentanyl, he said, is a major reason Missouri has seen a striking increase in drug overdose deaths.

“Not only is it much cheaper to produce — and therefore much more profitable for drug dealers — but it’s also much more powerful,” Westhoff explained. “It’s 50 times stronger than heroin. And so even a tiny little bit can kill people, and does. And in places like St. Louis, it’s very hard to find any pure heroin at all on the streets.

“It’s almost all cut with fentanyl. That crosses over into other drugs, too. It’s almost impossible to find pure cocaine. It’s cut into meth, often. And even prescription pills. They look like real pills, with the Percocet logo or what have you. Those are often cut with fentanyl as well.”

In addition to discussing what he found in China, Westhoff talked about what he discovered in St. Louis. In one memorable chapter, he visited a “shooting gallery,” where people shoot up with fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin. Its location is in the city’s Hill neighborhood. In another passage, he talked to local addicted people about just how easy it is to score. Visit certain St. Louis gas stations, they told him, and you can get free samples so long as you give them your phone number.

Still, solutions aren’t as simple as locking up drug dealers or cracking down on the Chinese factories that supply the world with fentanyl. Westhoff said as regulations have tightened in China, some manufacturers are setting up shop in India. He stressed the need for harm-reduction efforts that acknowledge people will use drugs, and seek to mitigate the fallout. 

“You can either bury your head in the sand, or come to terms with the fact that people will always use drugs,” he said.

Related Event
What: Ben Westhoff book tour launch
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters (1640 South Lindbergh Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63124)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Stay Connected
Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.