Drug dealers get rich and stay legal by outsourcing to China
Drugs are products, just like anything else. And their world is changing.
For years, American fortunes have piled up on the backs of outsourced labor. Clothes, toys, and cars are made cheaply in foreign countries and sold here at a high profit margin.
Now, more than ever, a new class of businessmen — the world's smartest drug dealers — are following that playbook. They're using cheap labor and loose drugs laws in less-developed countries — mostly China — to create synthetic drugs that are cheaper, more compact — and that consumers still love. They're creating shadowy underground drug economy, building themselves mansions and putting some users in the grave. All while staying one step ahead of law enforcement, operating, in many cases, technically legally.
It's a complex story. It's difficult to think about drugs as a product like any other, a technology changing with globalization.
To explain the new drug world to us, author Ben Westhoff strides into the lobby of the Brown Palace in Denver. Westhoff is a midwestern journalist with a steady way of talking and a J.Crew-looking top. On first glance, he reminds you more of an accountant or actuary than a guy whose last book, Original Gangsters, investigated N.W.A. and who killed Tupac Shakur. But he is actually a ballsy, risk-taking reporter who, over the past few years, prowled dark alleys full of opioid addicts in Saint Louis, sniffed out drug testing labs in Slovenia, and infiltrated drug-making chemical factories in China to see with his own eyes how drug dealers around the world are imagining new drug empires.
"Basically, these are drugs you haven't heard of before, or hadn't heard about until recently," Weshoff says. "The number one rule of the drug trade is that drug users are going to find a way to get high, and there's always going to be someone willing to supply them."
So much of what you think you know about drugs is changing. The world of "Narcos" is fading. The world of Asian outsourcing is here.
HOW DRUG DEALING USED TO WORK
For millennia, drugs came from plants. A field of poppies or coca plants in Afghanistan or Colombia was processed into heroin or cocaine and smuggled in big batches to Britain or America.
World cops spent decades and trillions of dollars trying to squash this plant-based trade, pouring poison on fields, busting the mules, and jailing the users, with super-high costs on both sides.
But while that old tired Drug War still rages around the world, this new scene is emerging, full of synthetic drugs that exist in legal gray areas. They're not made from plants, they're made invisibly, out of precursor chemicals, and they're sent through the mail.
AN EXAMPLE OF THESE DRUGS: "MEOW MEOW" AND "ICE CREAM"
To see one example of how this new drug route works, Westhoff traveled to Slovenia, a country he only knew about as the birthplace of Melania Trump. There, he met a guy he calls "Vlad," a guy who made bank selling a new, previously unknown drug called "ice cream."
Vlad, like most drug dealers at the beginning of this decade, started off selling old-fashioned, plant-based drugs; he got addicted to heroin in 2012, and got caught selling a number of times. But then — like so many of this new class of drug dealer — Vlad got smart. He started selling a powder called mephedrone. Mephedrone is a cathinone (a "bath salt") sometimes called meow meow. Despite the bad rep of "bath salts" aS zombie drugs — (and "bath salts" do drive some people crazy) — most users report "bath salts" actually feel pleasantly like molly or meth.
Meow meow doesn't come from plants; it's synthesized in a lab somewhere in Asia. Vlad got it cheaply off the web; mailed to his house, with no need to meet a shady dealer in a dark alley. Best for Vlad, when cops caught Vlad with the meow meow, he argued (accurately) that it wasn't scheduled, and was therefore legal, and the cops let him go.
So here's the game:
Meow meow was outlawed in Slovenia a few years back. But Vlad stayed a step ahead of the law. Some chemist — probably in China — figured out that if you tweak the meow meow molecule just slightly, you have a new drug that feels similar. The new drug felt so good Vlad described it to Westhoff as "Chinese cocaine." This new drug was not illegal. So Vlad started rolling in profits selling it.
Vlad became semi-famous in Slovenia when his girlfriend — a genius marketer — started adding vanilla protein powder to the new drug — she wanted users to got a few calories while partying. Because of the vanilla flavor, users called the drug "ice cream," and "ice cream" became even more popular than meow meow. And, again, "ice cream" was technically legal. Vlad started making 5,000 euros a month, "quite a lot in an inexpensive country," Westhoff writes.
The active ingredient in "Ice cream" — 3-MMC — was banned in some countries. But it was never banned the U.S. You can buy "ice cream" off the regular internet — probably from China — and have it shipped to your door. Tests show some of the "molly" sold at concerts here is actually what the Slovenians called "ice cream." "Ice cream" isn't a great bargain for users. "Ice cream" is more unpredictable than MDMA, which is what many users think the're getting when they buy "molly." But dealers get "ice cream" cheaply and semi-legally, and probably won't go to jail for selling it. And so "ice cream" is beginning to be popular in America now. You may have taken some yourself.
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
America will probably eventually outlaw the "ice cream" drug. But in Slovenia, now that "ice cream" is illegal, they've moved on to other drugs. It's a cat-and-mouse game. A drug's made illegal, dealers find a new drug.
These drugs are sometimes Novel Psychoactive Substances — also called designer drugs, legal highs or research chemicals.
Westhoff had the idea to write a book about these drugs when he visited Denver in 2016 for a conference for DanceSafe, a local harm reduction organization. The world of novel psychoactive substances was unknown and fascinating, like a new continent. Westhoff found so many dudes (it's mostly dudes) raking in cash off these new drugs — and causing massive trouble.
For instance, Westhoff writes about a high school kid in Texas who sold an LSD knockoff called N-bombs to band geeks and football players for ten times what he paid. Everything was going well until the N-bombs put a few of his classmates in the hospital.
AND THEN THERE'S FENTANYL
Westhoff's excellent, just-released book should be called Novel Drugs: How Rogue Chemists are Creating New Narcotics to Get Rich and Get Around the Law.
Instead, Westhoff book is called, "Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic." The book is called this in part because fentanyl is a hot topic right now. Fentanyl is contributing to the deaths of 30,000 Americans a year.
Westhoff's most amazing bit of reporting was infiltrating a lab in China where chemists will take orders for different chemicals from dealers in the West. As long as the chemical is not technically illegal in China — and many chemicals aren't — the chemists will make you what you want and ship it to your door. "Ice cream" included.
The most deadly chemical the Chinese labs have been sending our way has been fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin. Fentanyl has been cheap to make and easy to send. And, for a long time, it was legal there. After fentanyl was outlawed in China, the labs started making fentanyl analogs that feel much the same but were technically legal. Dealers here sold the fentanyl analogs as heroin or Xanax. As these fentanyl analogs were outlawed, the Chinese chemists starting making precursor chemicals that get you 90 percent of the way toward fentanyl.
Fentanyl and its analogs are a big worry for people who use drugs. Without testing, it's hard to know if your pill is actually Xanax, or if it's fent. Thousands have died more or less instantly when a chemist got the mix wrong.
"The days of random recreational drug use are pretty much over," Westhoff says. "You can't just go to a party and sniff a line anymore, and assume you're going to come out the other end."
Test kits, like those sold by Denver's DanceSafe, are essential, Westhoff says.
DEALERS KEEP ON GOING
This story — outsourcing the drug trade — is not well known. Why? "People aren't used to drugs coming from China," Westhoff says. "People have a hard time wrapping their head around it."
But the story affects millions of Americans. And Chinese outsourcing is likely to continue, at least until the Drug War ends.
Because even if the West gets wise to the shift, and changes its whole Drug War strategy to focus on cracking down on Chinese labs, the drug trade is likely to stay one step ahead. "If we try to control the manufacturers in China, production will just migrate to India," Westhoff says. It feels endless, pointless. Law enforcement has "tried these war on drugs tactics for so many years, and the problems aren't getting better — they're getting worse."
As our interview ends, Westhoff heads off to a book reading at the Tattered Cover. He'll tell his story of drug outsourcing to a crowd there. And he'll tell it on NPR, and in The Atlantic, and on TV.
And despite all Americans' talk about outsourcing, this is the biggest outsourcing stories people don't hear about. Will regular people ever notice? Or is the story too big, too complex, too foreign? The lives and fortunes of thousands may depend on how far this story travels, and how fast.