You don’t need the dark web to buy drugs from China — or at least that’s how it looks on Google. With just a little bit of searching, you can find websites that offer to ship a range of illicit substances — including the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl — straight from the factory in China to a mailing address in the United States.
But on the internet, things aren’t always what they seem.
Our team at VICE News spent the last year making a podcast called “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis,” tracing the illicit supply chain back to suppliers in Mexico and China. As part of our reporting, we reached out to a number of online retailers based in China who advertised fentanyl or other synthetic opioids. Eventually, we convinced one trafficker to meet in person at a public park in Shanghai. He told us about his path into the business, the unintended consequences of a recent Chinese government crackdown on fentanyl, and his concerns about dealing a drug that’s responsible for tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S.
“I’m really afraid of hurting people,” he said. “I don’t want people to get hurt by the drugs, by the medicine, by my companies. That’s my concern.”
Drug traffickers can face the death penalty in China, so we are not identifying our contact or his website. When we asked his name during our first phone conversation last fall, he replied, “It doesn’t matter,” before suggesting the pseudonym Mr. Yue.
Mr. Yue’s website lists dozens of different chemicals for sale, including synthetic stimulants (aka bath salts), cannabinoids (aka K2 or Spice), steroids, human growth hormone, and more. The listings include pictures of white and brown powders and crystal shards. One is for methoxyacetyl fentanyl, a common and powerful variety of the drug. The post promises wholesale discounts, next-day shipping, and free replacements if the drugs are lost or seized by authorities in the mail. But when we contacted Mr. Yue, he said his website was outdated: He no longer offers fentanyl. Instead, he’s now “teaching people to make it themselves.”
There are several ways to synthesize fentanyl. Some rely on precursor chemicals that have been outlawed in both the U.S. and China, but other methods use basic chemicals that are available for making regular products such as rubber and industrial products. The recipes are easily found online, but Mr. Yue claimed to supply something more — essentially an illustrated, step-by-step guide for setting up and operating a clandestine fentanyl lab.
Mr. Yue said he stopped making and selling actual fentanyl last May, after the Chinese government bowed to U.S. pressure and began regulating synthetic opioids as controlled substances. Previously, the drugs were essentially legal to manufacture, and some companies even received tax breaks and other subsidies from Beijing as chemical exporters. The new rules appear to be having the desired effect: U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows fentanyl seizures in the mail fell to 143 pounds in the last fiscal year, a 45% drop from 2018.
Fentanyl is now pouring into the U.S. from Mexico, where the Sinaloa cartel and other criminal groups have established production. Mr. Yue said he had at least one customer in Mexico, a country, he observed, where “money can do anything.”
Mr. Yue shared parts of his personal life, including his love of NBA basketball and LeBron James. He told us he grew up in a poor family in a small village in Shandong province, about 400 miles northwest of Shanghai. He earned a master’s degree in biology and began working at a chemical factory, but it wasn’t enough for his family. “They have a lot of expectations,” he said.
He stumbled into the drug trade, he said, because he needed money. He made contacts online and started to build up his business, but the government crackdown on fentanyl was hurting his bottom line. He was too afraid to risk selling it anymore.
“I can’t touch it,” he said. “Yes, fentanyl can bring money, but I can’t touch it. I lost many opportunities to make big money.”
Mr. Yue reiterated recently that he was quitting the fentanyl business because it was too risky. His site still listed synthetic opioids for sale, though he claimed it simply hadn’t been updated in awhile. He said he’d moved on to other products in high demand in the U.S., including reagents for coronavirus testing kits and N95 respirator masks.
“I can’t believe there are still so many Americans hanging around in the streets and with nothing on their face,” he said. “How can they be so stupid?”
Listen to the entire series “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis” for free on Spotify now.
Cover: VICE News Tonight/VICE TV. Animation by Jeremy Sengly.