In the spring of 2017 I began making contact with Chinese suppliers of NPS, speaking with them over both the surface web and the Dark Web, by Skype, e-mail, and encrypted message. I started by creating a fake e-mail address, a fake name, and a fake backstory, that I was in the market for recreational drugs. The suppliers were shockingly easy to find; I encountered most of them through simple Google searches of phrases like “buy drugs in China.” Their advertisements promised anything under the sun (so long as it could be made in a lab), including fentanyl and its analogues, methamphetamine, ketamine, synthetic cannabinoids, N-bombs, and opioids I had never heard of.
Most suppliers responded to my queries quickly and spoke English proficiently. They are well-accustomed to Western drug buyers, who are the bulk of their clients. I got up well before dawn to catch them during business hours and peppered them with questions about their sales practices and manufacturing techniques. Some stopped responding when I didn’t immediately place an order. Others, however, patiently answered my questions, and I eventually whittled down my contacts to a handful of promising leads who might be willing to show me their laboratories.
This is how I met a drug chemist and lab co-owner named Dowson Li—at least, that is how he signs his correspondence. He has a LinkedIn page under the name “Dowson Shanghai,” which says he received his bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical engineering from Jianghan University in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2001. Under “activities” it says, in English, that he took part in a “debate match held at the first grade of University, and won the champion in the Pharmaceutical Department.” As this book went to press, his company still appeared to be operating normally.
Dowson’s company is called Chemsky, and its official website dubiously claims it specializes in medical and pharmaceutical drugs. “[Chemsky] provides fine chemicals, natural products, pharmaceutical intermediates, and APIs [Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients] for major pharmaceutical and biotech companies worldwide,” it reads, next to a picture of a goggles-clad chemist handling test tubes. It adds that the company’s international roster of clients includes Johnson & Johnson, but that is not true, according to Andrew Wheatley, a Johnson & Johnson spokesperson. The LinkedIn page for Dowson Li says Chemsky offers twenty thousand regular products as well as “custom synthesis from gram to kilogram tailored to our clients’ specific needs.”
In truth, Chemsky’s bread and butter is NPS: synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, novel benzodiazepines, fentanyl precursors, and fentanyl analogues, including the very dangerous 3-methylfentanyl, which is not a legitimate medical drug and has been a horrible scourge in places like Estonia. Many of these illicit drugs are advertised on Chemsky’s official website, shchemsky.com, and others are for sale on ChemicalBook.com, a directory of chemical wholesalers.
In October 2017 I sent Chemsky an e-mail inquiring about fentanyl precursors. Dowson replied promptly and cordially, attaching a product list to the e-mail, which included a long list of NPS. We began chatting on Skype; clearly he was different from other overeager salespeople I had been talking to, no fly-by-night huckster hoping for a quick profit. A chemist with years of experience, he co-owned his lab and had been able, I surmised, to always stay one step ahead of drug laws. He had gotten it down to a science, literally. After I told him I would be coming to China, he said he would be happy to meet me.
With this promise, and the same from a few other illicit chemical industry employees, I bought a plane ticket to China. In January, 2018, I arrived in Shanghai. I was very nervous about this endeavor, considering no journalist had ever infiltrated a Chinese lab making fentanyls. I soon contacted Dowson, asking if he would be willing to take me to his company’s lab. He said perhaps, but first we could talk at his company’s office. Rather than giving me the office’s address, however, he asked me to meet him outside a Shanghai subway station, and then we would head over together. Concerned for my safety, I arrived with a translator and researcher I’d met over the internet before my trip, whom I’ll call Jada Li. I asked her to keep an eye on things. Since Dowson requested that I come alone, however, she monitored the situation incognito from twenty feet away, intending to follow behind us on foot at a distance when we went to his office. But Dowson unexpectedly arrived in a car, so that plan was abandoned.
It was pouring rain. I shook hands with Dowson and got into his Chevy. At the wheel was a beefy man who didn’t speak English; Dowson identified him only as his driver, though the man also seemed as if he could be the operation’s muscle. We drove off toward what Dowson said was his office, but actually turned out to be his apartment, a sleek flat on the top floor of a luxury high-rise in a gated community. From sixteen stories up we gazed through thick smog at ultramodern, pulsing Shanghai.
Dowson asked me to remove my shoes and gestured at three pairs of slippers that were reserved for guests. “Take the largest one,” he said. “Now sit down please. I will make you some water.”
People had cautioned me against visiting China in the winter, as hardly anyone seems to have heat, or at least most decline to use it. Even in restaurants, patrons huddle at tables in thick jackets, drinking soup and exhaling visible breath. To compensate for the discomfort, people offered me hot water everywhere I went, the way one might be offered coffee in the United States. In the chilly environs of Dowson’s apartment, I could keep my rain jacket on without looking suspicious, allowing me to record our conversation on my smartphone, which I kept zipped up in a breast pocket.
We made small talk. Dowson suggested Shanghai tourist destinations I might enjoy—including the Jing’an Buddhist Temple and the famous Nanjing Road shopping district—and even volunteered to be my tour guide when it stopped raining. As a businessman he knew how to work the angles and to appeal to a prospective customer.
“You are so, how do you say, not old!” he said, as we sat down in his home office, in front of his desktop computer. I laughed and thanked him.
“I’m not too old, too. Thirty-eight,” he went on. “I’ve owned the company for eight years. We do many chemicals, including a few of the chemicals that you asked about, such as MAF. I know it’s not legal in several countries, but it’s still legal in China.”
MAF, also known as methoxyacetylfentanyl, is the fentanyl analogue also sold by Dark Web dealer U4IA. Though it had recently become a schedule I drug in the United States (“no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”), its legal status in China made it desirable, considering regular fentanyl and many other analogues were banned. MAF wouldn’t be legal in China for long, but when the Chinese government outlawed it, Dowson would simply move on to new drugs that haven’t yet been banned.
It is a never-ending cat and mouse game, and Chemsky thrives within this narrow window of legitimacy, which often lasts less than a year for any particular substance. During the brief period when a new drug has developed positive word of mouth on the Internet and is still legal in China, chemical companies like Chemsky produce and sell as much of it as they can.
I had a few sips of hot water, and then Dowson and I got down to brass tacks.
At his apartment, Dowson handed me a computer printout listing his company’s latest drugs. He enclosed it in a plastic sleeve and asked me not to remove it from the apartment. Compared to the previous list he had e-mailed me three months earlier, it had many changes, but in general the items listed remained obscure, little-known NPS with gibberish-sounding names, like AB-CHFUPYCA. I couldn’t begin to pronounce many of them.
I recognized some fentanyl analogues, including MAF and BUF-fentanyl, also known as benzoylfentanyl, an obscure analogue with no data about human use available. As the print-out noted, one kilogram of benzoylfentanyl sold for $2,400. The bulk pricing indicated that the intended clients for these chemicals weren’t individual users but drug distributors, such as I was pretending to be.
“What about ten kilograms, what would the cost be?” I asked.
“Ten kilograms, ten times [the price],” he said. “There is no discount.”
Also on his product list were stimulants, depressants, and more than a dozen varieties of synthetic cannabinoids, with names like MMB-Fubica and AMB-Chmica. These were the next generation of fake marijuana products since the banning of John William Huffman’s JWH series (China has scheduled at least nine JWH compounds)—or perhaps the next, next generation.
As I looked over the list, Dowson’s expression became increasingly concerned. “We are afraid that a reporter come to our lab, to our country, to find out why we synthesize these chemicals, or why we sell these chemicals to your country,” he said. “To let your people’s health down. To harm your country’s people. So, I wonder whether I should take you to our lab.”
Still harboring doubts about me, he decided we should talk more over lunch. After I respectfully declined his offer to treat me to McDonalds, we settled on a local restaurant near Shanghai University. I discreetly texted Jada our location, as best as I could make it out. As we continued getting to know each other, our conversation sometimes veered in bizarre directions. “Why US government not bomb North Korea?” he said, apropos of nothing. “It is not good. And they have big weapon. The US government should bomb it. It’s a responsibility. For the US, and also for China.” Mostly he expressed admiration for the United States, including the leadership abilities of Donald Trump. The Chinese would always be grateful to the United States for defending their country against Japan in the Second World War, he noted.
He asked about my specific reason for meeting him. I explained that I was here at the behest of a friend from the States who was an NPS distributor. He was interested in making bulk purchases of fentanyl analogues and other drugs, and had asked me to visit Dowson’s lab. If, according to my assessment, the lab had high enough quality standards, then my friend would go into business with him.
This explanation didn’t entirely satisfy Dowson.
Why didn’t he come himself?
“Because I was already planning to come to China, to visit a friend,” I said, improvising.
A friend? Where?
“In Wuhan,” I said, naming the city from which I’d arrived the previous night.
I’m from Wuhan! What part of Wuhan?
Pretending not to understand what he was saying, I excused myself to use the restroom. When I returned, we got on to something else, and somehow, by the time lunch was over, he had decided that I passed muster.
“We have friendship, I trust you,” he said, taking out his phone to call the beefy driver, who arrived shortly to take us to the lab. Soon we were back in the Chevy, speeding down a Shanghai interstate.
I was excited that he’d agreed to take me to his lab, but I was nervous that things might not go as planned. When I inquired about our destination, Dowson said only that the lab was “outside Shanghai.” I began to sweat. My GPS wasn’t functioning and the road signs were mostly in Mandarin, which I didn’t speak. The driver wove between lanes while Dowson peppered me with more questions.
Where in the USA are you from?
Where are you staying in Shanghai?
I was from New York and I was staying at the Bund Hotel, I said, again improvising. I was actually staying at a youth hostel, but didn’t want him to know my location.
In my anxiety I felt around for a seat belt, but there wasn’t one. I tried to track where we were going and surreptitiously texted the names of street exits and landmarks to Jada, in case something went horribly wrong. “Shangzhong Road Tunnel,” I typed, and “Sanlu Highway.” At one point I just typed, “Headed west I think.”
Though our time together so far had been friendly, Dowson had an inquisitive manner and seemed to grow increasingly skeptical of my identity. He had his sun visor down and kept glancing at me through its mirror.
Are you a reporter?
No, I said, putting on my poker face.