Is Fentanyl a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

Usually we think of bombs, missiles, rockets and dangerous chemicals as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the military website Task & Purpose recently reported that James McDonnell, who heads the Department of Homeland Security’s WMD division, wants to classify fentanyl as a WMD.

McDonnell proposed this in a February memo to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The drug’s “high toxicity and increasing availability” make it “attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack,” according to the memo.

There isn’t much evidence for classifying fentanyl as a WMD, but McDonnell’s suggestion could still find support for reasons that have more to do with politics than science.

According to federal law, weapons that can kill or severely injure "through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors" fall into the category of weapons of mass destruction.

McDonnell thinks fentanyl fits the definition. It is not clear that he is correct. And he neglected to mention that fentanyl has a legitimate medical use, too.

History of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid typically prescribed to patients in acute pain or during surgeries. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 48 million surgical inpatient procedures were performed in the United States in 2009. Most of those procedures involved administering fentanyl intravenously as an analgesic. 

Fentanyl was developed in 1960 by Belgian chemist Dr. Paul Janssen. The patent for fentanyl was obtained under his company name, Janssen Pharmaceutica. Fentanyl was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1968 and introduced into the marketplace as an analog for Demerol, with plans that it would be used only for palliative care.

In 1978, I coauthored with my professor mentor, Dr. T.H. Stanley, a manuscript titled “Anesthetic Requirements and Cardiovascular Effects of Fentanyl” that described the use of high dose fentanyl for cardiac anesthesia.

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The anesthetic technique we described allowed patients to undergo coronary artery bypass and valve replacement surgery more safely and with greater success because of fentanyl's unique pharmacologic properties. The technique was considered a seminal event in anesthesia for cardiac surgery.

Since the publication of that paper, millions of people have successfully undergone heart operations. The advance of using fentanyl in anesthesia may have helped some of those patients survive their heart operations.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that testing was done for delivering fentanyl through a transdermal patch for the treatment of cancer-related pain and noncancer chronic pain. Later, oral transmucosal delivery of fentanyl was made available for cancer breakthrough pain. Each of these new uses of fentanyl exposed millions of Americans to the drug without evidence of an inordinate degree of harm if it was used as directed.

In contrast, nonpharmaceutical fentanyl has caused enormous harm. But as illicit use of the drug proliferates, so do myths about its dangers. McDonnell’s memo fits into an overarching narrative that bestows almost magical properties on fentanyl.

What's Behind the Fentanyl Panic?

The opioid crisis is real and the use of illicit fentanyl is often lethal. But mischaracterizing the effects of fentanyl may be only a political maneuver. 

In New York Magazine, Sarah Jones wrote about a 2017 Bloomberg News story that claimed fentanyl “is so potent that even a small amount — the equivalent of a few grains of salt — can be lethal.” 

“This isn’t really true,” wrote Jones. “You can’t get high or become ill simply by touching fentanyl, but police departments often claim otherwise. They report dramatic, but varied, symptoms that don’t mesh with established scientific evidence about fentanyl and the way it’s absorbed by the human body.” 

As Jones points out, Homeland Security’s WMD division has experienced a decline in funding because of the Trump administration’s focus on immigration and building a wall at the border. One way to reclaim some of that money for the WMD division is to build a case against fentanyl. 

Other drugs, such as ricin, pose greater risks and are probably more lethal than fentanyl as WMD’s. However, the word "fentanyl" packs a far larger emotional punch than ricin does because of the public's familiarity with it.  

WMDs are meant to kill the maximum number of people is the shortest amount of time. On the other hand, fentanyl -- even when it is laced with heroin -- is not intended to kill people. Drug cartels want to make money. Their goal isn't to murder their customers

Protecting Access to Legitimate Fentanyl 

The opioid crisis is now largely driven by nonpharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, not prescription fentanyl. Solving the opioid problem will require greater efforts to reduce the illegal production and distribution of illicit fentanyl. 

Could fentanyl be weaponized and used to attack citizens? Maybe, but not easily.  

The Pentagon realized the harm that an opioid attack could cause when the Russian military used aerosolized carfentanil -- a highly potent fentanyl analog --  against terrorists who had taken over a theater in Moscow in 2002. The drug killed dozens of innocent hostages and their captors, and it put the U.S. on notice that opioids could be weaponized.  

Before we classify fentanyl as a WMD, we need to know what that would mean for its legitimate use during surgery, or for cancer and chronic pain patients. Access to the medication for the treatment of pain must be part of the calculus in assessing if a relatively safe and effective drug should be classified as a WMD. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.