“Basically any pill or any powder, if you didn’t get your pill from CVS, or from a pharmacy that’s legit, it could be cut with fentanyl…” -Ben Westhoff, author of Fentanyl Inc.
Recently, Joe Rogan hosted Ben Westhoff, award-winning journalist and author of Fentanyl Inc., on his podcast “Joe Rogan Experience.” Though it is still not getting enough attention, the opioid crisis, with fentanyl seeming to be leading the pack, is taking over 30,000 lives a year. ABC news reported that “U.S. Customs and Border Protection has stored enough fentanyl in the past year to kill an estimated 794 million people.” This crisis affects all of us.
Disseminating this information is critical because, as the Westhoff quote above suggests, anyone who buys pills outside of the drugstore or a verified source is at risk. Which is why we edited the engrossing and enlightening discussion between Rogan and Westhoff into a package that gives readers a sense of the scope of Westhoff’s book, the opioid crisis, and how psychedelics like ibogaine, ayahuasca, and MDMA are helping people get off of opioids, and treating the underlying psychological causes of addiction and mental health disorders. We encourage you to listen to the full podcast. The discussion between Rogan and Westhoff demonstrates the dire need for treatments like psychedelic substances, in that they can, studies are showing, impact the opioid crisis positively.
We are grateful to both Joe Rogan, for being a champion of this cause, and Ben Westhoff for exercising incredible journalism and bringing the inner workings of this fentanyl industry to all of our attention. Thank you.
Joe Rogan and Ben Westhoff (edited) Interview
Joe Rogan: This is a subject that scares the shit out of me. How did you stumble upon the story of fentanyl?
Ben Westhoff: I was the LA weekly music editor and I started looking into the story about why people are always dying at raves. I don’t know if you remember. A few years back, every time there was a rave, like one person died, two people, or more. And they always said it was ecstasy. But I knew that ecstasy was really not that dangerous of a drug. MDMA, pure MDMA, very few people die from that. And I was like what is going on here?
I looked into it and turned out it was all adulterated. It wasn’t real ecstasy, wasn’t real Molly. It was adulterated with all these new drugs. And I kind of went down the rabbit hole. I found out that all these new drugs were made in China, they’re all synthetic and they’re like hundreds of them. Then it turns out that the worst of them was fentanyl and that’s how I got onto the topic.
JR: Most people think of fentanyl as being a new thing but it’s not really a new thing. Wasn’t it invented in the 50s?
BW: It was invented by a Belgian chemist [Paul Janssen]. He was trying to find something that worked better than morphine in hospitals.
JR: Doesn’t morphine work really well?
BW: Yeah, traditionally people have gotten a lot of mileage out of morphine. But for things like open heart surgery, he wanted something that came on really fast and lasted a long time. So he manipulated the chemical structure of morphine and came up with fentanyl. It became a blockbuster drug. It is still being used by hospitals all the time. There’s a fentanyl patch for people with cancer, and chronic pain. And then when you get a colonoscopy, they give you fentanyl before that. And then women who have epidurals during childbirth, that I believe is usually fentanyl. So it’s still an important hospital drug.
JR: So how did it come to be that this drug from the 1950s re-emerges during the rave scene, is that what it was?
BW: It was actually before that. It first started killing people little bit at the beginning of the 80s and nobody knew what it was.
JR: It was from China then as well?
BW: Back then, it was these kind of mystery chemists. There was this one guy in particular called George Marquardt. And he was like a genius maniac who read all the chemical literature, he learned all about fentanyl. He said “I should try to make this. I bet it would be a hit with recreational users.” And it stumped authorities because people would die. They would have track marks on their arms like it was heroin. They would have syringes but they tested them afterwards and there was no heroin their system. And so they’re like, what is this?
Apparently fentanyl was being used to dope horses so they would withstand more pain and would go longer and faster. So a[nother] guy made the connection, he’s like this is fentanyl, this new thing. And he actually predicted what was going to happen. He’s like we are in trouble now because not only is there fentanyl but if you ban fentanyl, you can adjust the molecule make another type of fentanyl, and then make another, at ad infinitum basically.
So that’s what all these new drugs have in common. My book is about NPS: Novel Psychoactive Substances. Fentanyl is the most famous and the most dangerous but these include basically like synthetic new versions of every drug. So marijuana: the NPS version is the synthetic cannabinoids. Heroin: the NPS version is fentanyl. There’s LSD, it’s like a wonder drug. No one has ever died of an LSD overdose. But once they started really cracking down on LSD, these chemists starting manufacturing this new type of psychedelic that was sold as acid…that could kill you and did kill you. These drugs are called “N-bombs,” it’s like the worst name of all time.
JR: So it wasn’t really LSD?
BW: Not at all.
JR: Now, the crazy thing is this probably could be fixed with legalizing all drugs. But nobody wants to legalize all drugs. It’s such a catch-22 because if you had a heroin available at the corner store, you would have no need to buy fentanyl and if it was at a reasonable price, we couldn’t undercut you. It’s a terrible thing to even say I don’t want people to be able to just go by meth.
BW: Decriminalization, is a better alternative in my opinion, my research, than legalization. The more you think about it, people get arrested for using fentanyl. They go to jail. And then the recidivism rate is through the roof. People get out and they start using again. People don’t realize that fentanyl is killing more people than any drug in American history ever on an annual basis. More than heroin, more than pills, more than crack. And so things just get worse and worse every year. People aren’t talking about it that much.
JR: How is decriminalization going to stop that? Because decriminalization will just make fentanyl more available. This is a very very messy subject and I’m not a proponent of legalizing all drugs. But if you legalize them and you can buy them from reputable sources, you would know that you’re actually buying cocaine. If you buy whiskey, there’s a thing on the label tells you what the proof is. We can regulate that. You get a beer. That’s a beer. You know how much alcohol is in there…but this whole heroin thing, fentanyl thing…all these different drugs. It’s very messy.
BW: There are simple steps we can take to help stop the opioid crisis. And one thing I’m a big advocate for is called fentanyl testing strips. The weird thing about fentanyl is it’s not a demand-driven drug. People don’t want fentanyl.
JR: They’re sneaking it into other things…
BW: Exactly. Studies have shown that if users know fentanyl is in their cocaine or their meth, heroine, pills, they will be much less likely to use it and overdosed from it. So, fentanyl testing strips. They’re really cheap. Just these paper strips. It’s simple, it’s immediate but again U.S. Laws are so insane that these are actually banned in certain states like Pennsylvania.
JR: What are the steps…that can be taken to sort of alleviate or at least somewhat mitigate this awful crisis?
BW: Well there’s Narcan. Like the miracle overdose reversal drug? It’s a nasal spray usually and so if someone has overdosed on opioids: fentanyl, heroin pills, whatever, these sprays will bring them back to life–literally. That’s available in some places.
JR: And isn’t it the case that some fentanyl overdoses…that people have it on their skin? So these people that are helping them…
BW: No. You cannot get an overdose by touching fentanyl.
JR: What are the numbers in terms of annual deaths from fentanyl in the United States?
BW: It up to over 30,000 a year. That’s more than the peak of the AIDS crisis.
JR: That’s the horrific thing. It’s sort of snuck up on us. This is not a big thing in the news. Because it’s illegal, it’s happening in this sort of weird gray area.
BW: It’s a lot of people in the margins. At the Democratic debate they [candidates] were asked: “what would you do about the fentanyl crisis, the opioid crisis?” They all said basically that we got to sue the pharmaceutical companies. I have sympathy for that argument… The money will go towards care, treatment, all that. But that does nothing to stop the fentanyl crisis. The pill deaths are already starting to drop. Which is great. Heroin deaths are starting to drop which is great but fentanyl deaths are still rising… it’s killing more people than car accidents, more than guns. Did you know that? Fentanyl kills more than guns.
RG: What kills me is that I just don’t see a logical first step…where someone can still do something about it…other than the legalization of drugs. Alcohol is simple, right? Make it legal, we’re adults. The pills though are not simple, right?
BW: Well, the War On Drugs is increasingly going to be turned towards China. You know Trump has been meeting with the Chinese president. All the Trade War stuff, the increasing the tariffs, this is now tied into Fentanyl. So supposedly China says, they’re finally going to crack down on these drug labs. We’ll see if it happens. But the point is: what is our past record in this round? Like the DEA helped kill Pablo Escobar, right? But since then there’s more cocaine coming out of Columbia, then there ever was before. Like 90% or more of the illicit fentanyl comes from China. If we do get them to crack down on it industry is going to go to India.
India is already starting to see these huge busts. There’s these Mexican cartel members getting busted in India for buying fentanyl in India. The thing is China and India have the two biggest chemical Industries when it comes to generic, kind of low lower-level chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. has the most profitable pharmaceutical industry because we make the brand name drugs. Mexico doesn’t have its own chemical industry and a bunch of scientists who can make fentanyl and these new drugs. So that’s what makes India so susceptible to it. And the biggest problem is actually not even the fentanyl itself. It’s the fentanyl precursors…the Chinese government is not only failing to crack down, but they’re encouraging this industry.
JR: This is what’s crazy about this. What you said before, no one running for president is talking about it. The president has talked about it briefly. But I don’t see any big steps being taken. How do you eradicate this stuff?
BW: Have you heard of medication assisted treatment? Medication-assisted treatment…[is combined]…with traditional counseling and therapy. Because a lot of times it’s not just chemical hooks. You know what I mean? It’s people’s lives; they have problems. They’re out of work. They got terrible family problems. They have trauma in their past. And if you can unravel those problems, really get to the heart of things, people can quit. They do it all the time.
JR: There’s another method that is not widely discussed, but it’s incredibly effective. And that’s Ibogaine.
BW: I’ve heard about that.
JR: Well, I know many people that have kicked pills because of ibogaine, kicked booze, kicked destructive self-destructive habits because of it…It’s legal in Mexico. It’s something of a miracle cure for opiate addiction with minimum withdrawal symptoms. There’s something that happens with ibogaine when you take it. It does something to rewire the areas of the brain that respond to opiates and that are hardwired for addiction…they have a very low… repeat addiction rates.
BW: Yeah, psychedelics. There seems to be so much potential there. There is this professor that I write about, his name is David Nichols. He basically spent his whole career studying psychedelics as a way to help people beat cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, even fight things like PTSD. It was actually found that MDMA, ecstasy, is like this amazing drug for PTSD.
JR: I’ve heard this. MAPS is in the middle…
BW: Exactly. They’ve finally gotten clearance to do these studies. And in some cases just using MDMA one time is enough. It rewires the brain. It’s like resetting the hard drive.
JR: I think it also changes the way people think about drugs because these are not escape drugs in the same sense as heroin is or fentanyl is or cocaine is. These drugs give you a refocused perspective on reality itself.
BW: I don’t need to tell you about DMT.
JR: Ayahuasca is also very successful for people using it to quit smoking, to quit alcohol, for people with real issues. It take[s] you on a little journey into the mind and shows you, through dimethyltryptamine, what’s fucking with you. This is something you’ve sort of stored away in the back of your brain that’s rotten. You’re always ignoring it, but it’s always there, so flavors everything you do…
…Psychedelics, one of the things they do, is shine a bright light on all those weird parts of the mind that we all have. We all have weird memories or weird feelings or weird thoughts of inadequacy or self-hate. Whatever it is that causes us to be self-destructive, and make poor choices…these things sort of fester in your subconscious. DMT, psilocybin, a lot of different psychedelic drugs, which oddly enough, the most potent ones, they mirror normal human neurochemistry. DMT is a part of normal human neurochemistry. It’s produced by the human body.
BW: Did it have a profound long-lasting impact on you?
JR: Oh yeah. It changes who you are. You’re pre-that-thing and then you are now-you-know. Now you know there’s a whole other dimension to understanding and experiencing. It’s very different from the whole static world we live in.
JR: What are you trying to do with this book besides let people know the history of fentanyl? Do you feel like with education you can do some good? Because people will be armed with facts and understanding and make better choices?
BW: All the above. All branches of the U.S. government have been reaching out to me about this book. Like this China stuff. Nobody knew anything about what China was doing and why. The left and the right sort of like this book. Which is a rare consensus cut. Because the right-wing is really into why China is fucking with us and the left-wing is really into this idea of harm reduction. That’s my big talking point. The War on Drugs stuff, I always compare it to sex education, right? I mean we can teach abstinence believe that kids aren’t going to have sex, stick their heads in the sand. Or we can understand kids are always going to have sex and always going to take drugs. Let’s try to help them do it more safely.