“A Brief History of the Fentanyl Epidemic”

I’ve hesitated to write this post on fentanyl for awhile now for a few reasons. For starters, I didn’t want to seem to be abjuring responsibility for the events that led to my prison sentence. What happened was tragic, and I admittedly played a role in what transpired, however well-intentioned and unthinking.

If I’m being honest, in a world where this post gained traction, I fear that the following criticism of certain powerful entities would be harm my employment prospects 5 years from now than my criminal history.

Firstly, some eye-opening stats (as best as I can recall): deaths due to opiod (esp. fentanyl) overdoses number 50,000+ every year, or the total number of U.S. casualties in the Vietnam War. The opiod epidemic has affected every strata of society; unlike previous drug epidemics (e.g. crack), one socioeconomic class or ethnicity hasnt suffered alone. No one has been immune.

During the Bush/Obama years, for the first time ever in this country, the life expectancy for an entire ethnic group *declined*; in an unenviable bit of white privilege, whites committed slow-motion suicide via drugs and drink for the first part of the 21st century. (The situation for the white working class was exceptionally dire). They were also committing suicide-suicide at higher rates than ever.

As anyone deep into the drug world during the 2010s can attest, opioid deaths, particularly due to fentanyl overdoses, were a ubiquitous feature of the scene. I knew of half a dozen or so victims (friends of friends, etc.) before I even started dabbling in opiates. When I progressed to dope, it was like every single user I knew had OD’ed at least once from a fentanyl-laced pack. Even more shocking (in retrospect), no one batted an eye at this fatal fact, myself included; we jus kinda shrugged and accepted it as part of the bargain.

When I think of its unprecedented nature and staggering reach throughout society, the tragedy of fentanyl overdose deaths has become a (counter)cultural watermark for life in 2010s America, just like the acid trip and the expansion of consciousness was in the 60s.

The ongoing fentanyl epidemic in the U.S. is really a story in two parts.

The introduction of oxycontin domestically thru Purdue Pharma’s stunning duplicity is a commonly accepted origin point. But I think such a diagnosis is too facile. The American ruling class is truly the responsible party. They’ve relentlessly shat on citizens by enacting policies catering to special interests and global corporations, squandered the advantages of being the lone superpower during the past 30 years far quicker than anyone imagined.

The second part of this story tells of a foreign adversary far more bloodthirsty than any cartel: communist China. 

But first, the cultural and political upheavals that that made the the U.S. populace susceptible to China’s predations.

Odd for a democracy, the American ruling class is largely composed of privileged individuals who loathe their constituents. Since the 90s, terrible trade deals, offshoring, globalisation, automation, and mass immigration resulted in a stagnant economy, (for the bottom 50%, it was moribund). There was little to no real wage growth for anyone not a corporate exec, and income inequality accelerated. (Trends that have reversed over the last 4 years.)

Americans then had their kids shipped overseas to fight wars in countries they never heard of; some came home maimed, many were shellshocked by their experience, and worse they didnt even know why. This convergence of events created for the existential dread Americans felt for the future; for the first time, they believed their kids would have a tougher life than they did. In a society that de-emphasized traditional structures like religion, they desperately needed emotional relief, courtesy of Big Pharma.

Egregious overprescribing remained common for most of the 2000s, and not jus painkillers, though. Every negative emotion suddenly found a pharmaceutical remedy. A case of the blues was reinterpreted as clinical depression. Kids with short-attention spans (I.e. kids) and lazy students were given low-grade meth. Anyone that went thru a hard breakup had a bottle of xannies to ameliorate anxiety. It’s crazy how easy it was to get a script for any narcotic in these halcyon days.

The sudden spike in overdose deaths from oxycontin (particularly the 80mg instant release formula) brought a slew of lawsuits and increased scrutiny, which caused the feds to overcorrect in prescribing guidelines. Law-abiding Americans who were denied their pain meds after years of use suddenly found themselves in the throes of withdrawal, strung out like any dope sick junkie.

They tried to get relief any way they could find it. For many, pills on the black market were much too expensive to maintain the habit they had developed under medical supervision. So they turned to the cheaper alternative: heroin.

However, it’s nearly impossible to overstate how deadly China’s intervention in this supply chain has been. A heroin epidemic is much different than an opiod epidemic. The margin between an active dose and a lethal one, already slim for heroin, is basically nonexistent for fentanyl. Meaning, the dose required to get high is nearly identical to the minimum dose that’ll kill you.

Fentanyl is not new, and for a long time, it was marketed and known as China White, which it still is. In fact, I think it’s at the center of the criminal enterprise in that famous Bruce Lee movie. But new technologies and recent policy have granted China a de facto monoply on fentanyl; the dark web has made widespread distribution both feasible and profitable. It’d be more accurate to say China invented the modern fentanyl market.

Fentanyl is not jus responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths; it’s also made the dope game much more lucrative for any enterprising, unscrupulous dealer without cartel connections.

Browsing any darknet market reveals scores of wholesale fent vendors based in China, selling small quantities of a gram to large ones of a kilo. (Any other vendor of the opiod and its analogues are just middle-men between the Asian wholesalers and American buyers: they simply put a huge markup– like 200%–on the wholesale price in exchange for faster, more reliable, and trackable shipping options.)

Considering their draconian drug policy and surveillance state, this Chinese monopoly hasnt resulted due to the ambition of enterprising criminal cartels; it’s tacitly supported by the Chinese government and encouraged by the CCP’s hostility towards the West. Unlike, say, Colombian cocaine, the production of fentanyl does not rely upon local plantlife, and requires highly sophisticated laboratories.

In fact, (per wikipedia), fentanyl is nearly impossible to manufacture in an illicit lab because it’s a notoriously difficult compound to synthesize. In comparison, the production of LSD is easier by multiple factors.

The implication being: Chinese fentanyl production occurs in government- or government-sanctioned labs. In fact, until the last trade negotiation with the U.S., fentanyl was legal to manufacture in China, designated a commercial product, instead of a narcotic. If I remember right, it was this specific term to the new trade agreement that the Chinese reneged on, which provoked the U.S. during negotiations. 

In what is now a familiar pattern to anyone paying attention this past year, the Chinese government prohibited the sale of fentanyl domestically, while exporting death abroad. Chinese companies manufactured fentanyl, carfentanil, and other analogues with the tacit approval of the government, who classified it as some kind of consumer product rather than a pharmaceutical or narcotic. They then accessed a foreign customer base via dark web markets and sold it by the kilo thru these and other murky, illicit channels that utilized cryptocurrency for anonymity.

In short, the Chinese Communist Party is waging a sort of chemical warfare on the West by making readily available the most potent opiods known to man for pennies on the dollar.

A few years ago, you could find a kilo of fent going for a couple grand on the dark web, which is the kind of deal unscrupulous dealers salivate over. They could hit that 10 times over with cut and be left with a product still stronger than most street heroin, in a quantity with a street value of over a half million dollars.

If the U.S. were doing this to another country, there’d be social justice mobs condemning it as proof positive of our moral deficiency as a racist and imperialist society. 

And yet…on it goes, year after year, 50,000 dead, and it barely gets mentioned on a national stage. I think Trump is the first politician to have actually said the word “fentanyl” aloud, let alone within the context of China.

What’s especially disconcerting is China’s brazen approach to this modern kind of chemical warfare. Theyre completely unapologetic about it; the legality of manufacturing fent is their worst kept secret. Their superpower aspirations find an outlet in causing cultural chaos in their main political rival.

But since dealers in the U.S. are the ones hitting their product with fentanyl, and American junkies love the potency, our leaders just shrug and never mention what’s happening.

I suspect this is partly China’s revenge upon the Anglo world for the Opium Wars a century or two ago. Britain’s unscrupulous business practices lead to widespread opium use among native Chinese, the country was essentially in thrall to the drug; it’s estimated this episode set China back generations.

But this has got me wondering, has the U.S. already ceded dominance to China? When the smoke clears from the pandemic and we can assess the facts soberly, will countries already value an alliance with China more than the U.S., which they see as a civilization in terminal decline? 

And when I consider my own role in this epidemic, more as an unthinking actor drowned by a cultural tidal wave, I try to remember how I even reached that point to be in that position. America has a bad habit of imprisoning its drug users; it’d probably be more productive to ask what lead them to use drugs so destructively.

That person in my PSI seems foreign to me now, but both Jeff and me were afforded the upbringing of the upper-middle class. With all that privilege, why’d we risk it for a Russian Roulette of a high? Perhaps more damning, what sort of society have we produced where a sizeable proportion of us have already considered the risk worth it, risking death in exchange for an hour or two of worry-free, pain free euphoria?


  1. Anonymous says:

    This was a great read !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always heard about the fentanyl epidemic, but don’t really know much about it except from the documentaries on YouTube. Thanks for this enlightening piece!


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