By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
The Trump Administration is considering labeling fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, according to a 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 prepared for then-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.”
A 2016 research article published in JAMA Internal Medicine speculated that counterfeit pills made with fentanyl could be the work of a “malicious actor” trying to poison people.
“These highly potent pills could have been created by a malicious actor to intentionally poison consumers or attract the attention of law enforcement to redistributors,” wrote Traci Green, PhD, Boston University School of Medicine, and Michael Gilbert, MPH, Epidemico Inc
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.