By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
The Trump Administration is considering labeling fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, according to an internal Homeland Security memo obtained by the military news website Task & Purpose.
"Fentanyl's high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack," wrote James McDonnell, a DHS assistant secretary, in a February 22, 2019 memo to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
According to the memo, the FBI considers fentanyl “a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.” The idea of labeling fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is also under consideration by the Department of Defense.
“Within the past couple years, there has been reinvigorated interest in addressing fentanyl and its analogues as WMD materials due to the ongoing opioid crisis,” McDonnell wrote.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, 50 to 100 more potent than morphine, that is legally prescribed to treat severe chronic pain. In recent years, bootleg versions of fentanyl and its chemical cousins have flooded the black market, where they are often added to heroin and cocaine to boost their potency or used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.
According to the CDC, fentanyl is involved in more overdoses than another drug and was linked to 18,835 drug deaths in 2016.
Most of the black market fentanyl is produced by drug labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico or shipped through the mail.
Designating fentanyl as a WMD would enable Homeland Security to increase funding for sensors and other technology that can detect fentanyl being smuggled in vehicles, packages and shipping containers.
A WMD expert told Task & Purpose the idea of fentanyl being used as a weapon was a “fringe scenario” because there are dozens of toxic chemicals that can be easily weaponized.
"It reads like somebody is laying the administrative background for trying to tap into pots of money for detecting WMD and decontaminating WMD," said Dan Kaszeta. "It's an interdepartmental play for money, that's all it is."
An unnamed senior defense official quoted by Task & Purpose was also skeptical.
"Anybody with a college level degree in chemistry can manufacture chemical weapons agents," the defense official said. “I cannot see any scenario where a nation-state would use fentanyl on the battlefield, or for that matter, a terrorist using a really toxic chemical like fentanyl in an attack when they could just sell it for funding the purchase of firearms and explosives or steal an industrial chemical instead.”
China recently agreed to ban all “fentanyl-related substances” by listing them as controlled substances. The move is meant to close a loophole that allowed drug labs to make novel variations of fentanyl that are not technically illegal.
While fentanyl is a scourge on the black market, drug experts say it’s not nearly as hazardous as it is often portrayed. Reports of first responders becoming severely ill after skin contact with fentanyl are likely the result of panic attacks.
“One of the issues with this dramatization of fentanyl toxicity is that it further stigmatizes substance users as contagious and dangerous. That can potentially delay care to those who need prompt rescue and treatment,” emergency medicine physicians Lewis Nelson, MD, and Jeanmarie Perrrone, MD, wrote in STAT News.
“There is clear evidence that passive exposure to fentanyl does not result in clinical toxicity. Descriptions of the signs and symptoms of those who have supposedly experienced passive toxicity vary widely. They include dizziness, blurry vision, pallor, weakness, sweatiness, high blood pressure, chest pain, heart palpitations, anxiety, and occasionally seizure-like activity. These findings are usually transient and resolve on their own, often far faster than would be expected, and are incompatible with the known duration of the drug’s effect.”
A fact sheet released by Health Canada also dispels some of the myths about fentanyl, telling first responders that skin exposure is “extremely unlikely to immediately harm you” and “there is no documented evidence of responders becoming ill after skin contact with fentanyl.”
Fentanyl has been used in at least one terrorist incident —- by law enforcement. In 2002, Russian police pumped an aerosol version of fentanyl into a Moscow theater where terrorists were holding hundreds of hostages. The gas inadvertently killed 117 of the hostages.