Homeland Security Considers Classifying Fentanyl as a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’
The opioid epidemic in America is one of the most unique and challenging public health crises we’ve ever faced. From doctors overprescribing pain killers to powerful synthetic variants like fentanyl flooding the black market from overseas, the devastation caused by opioids is staggering. There is even considerable fear that fentanyl could be weaponized, as the military news outlet Task & Purpose is reporting that an internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo suggests classifying fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction.
While there is no authoritative definition for what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction, it’s generally agreed that it refers to any nuclear, radiological, chemical, or biological weapon that can kill and bring significant harm to a large number of people or structures. In this context, the internal DHS memo suggests the potential for fentanyl to be used as a chemical agent in a staged attack.
The memo, dated February 22, 2019 with a subject line “Use of counter-WMD authorities to combat fentanyl,” explains the department’s justification for considering classifying fentanyl as a “mass casualty weapon.”
“Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack,” wrote James F. McDonnell, DHS assistant secretary for countering weapons of mass destruction.
McDonnell goes on to explain how as little as two to three milligrams of fentanyl are enough to induce respiratory depression and arrest, and possibly death. The memo also references an FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate from July 2018, which asserts that “fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack.”
It’s easy to see the logic in these statements. Fentanyl is powerful, readily available, and dirt cheap. It wouldn’t even be the first time opioids were weaponized in this manner. During the 2002 Moscow theater hostage situation, Russian troops released a gas containing the opioid carfentanil into the theater where over 800 hostages were being held by Chechen rebels, intending to incapacitate the rebels. As a result, more than 120 hostages were killed by the gas.
Still, not everyone within the defense community agrees with classifying fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. Dan Kaszeta, a defense expert specializing in chemical, biological, and nuclear agents told Task & Purpose that he sees the memo as an attempt to play for more funding amid recent budget cuts. A senior defense official speaking under the condition of anonymity concluded that other chemical agents like sarin or mustard gas would be far feasible.
But if we’ve reached the point where we’re splitting hairs about whether fentanyl would be as effective as sarin gas at killing large amounts of people, maybe it’s time to reconsider its medical applications.
Wexler Wallace is currently involved in litigation against pharmaceutical manufacturers in relation to their marketing of prescription opioids. To learn more about the case, click here.