According to an internal Department of Homeland Security memo, top military and Homeland Security officials are considering whether to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, or WMD.
The synthetic opioid, which has been repeatedly blamed for a rise in drug overdose deaths in this country, concerns national security officials due to its potential lethalness in terror attacks.
The memo explains that DHS officials have been meeting with the Pentagon about potentially assigning the drug an official WMD designation in an effort to stop its availability on the black market.
DHS assistant secretary for countering weapons of mass destruction James McDonnell writes in the memo, “Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking non-conventional materials for a chemical weapons attack.” It was sent to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last February.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says fentanyl and its derivatives are behind 30,000 of the 72,000 overdose deaths in this country over the past two years.
Versions of it are produced throughout in China. They can also be purchased on the dark web.
The Chinese government responded last year to pressure from the Trump administration by adding fentanyl to China’s list of controlled substances, in an effort to also curb its manufacturing and distribution across that country.
Andy Weber, the former assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, says, “Now that there’s actually a market where one can buy large quantities of fentanyl analogues, it eliminates the capability gap and it makes it accessible to terrorist groups. It’s a game changer. In my lifetime I’ve never seen a weapon of mass destruction that is part of an existing black market.”
According to weapons experts, the threat posed by fentanyl and its derivatives is more significant than that posed by other officially-designated weapons of mass destruction such as ricin.
The U.S. first took notice of the potential danger posed by fentanyl 17 years ago, when Russia’s military pumped the drug into the ventilation system of a theater that had been taken seized by Chechen rebels. That resulted in the deaths of dozens of hostages.
Weber adds, “That’s when we at the Pentagon started to realize that militaries were developing fentanyl analogues as a form of chemical weapon and that we needed to start working on countermeasures.”
Designating fentanyl as a WMD would make it easier for national security officials to redirect resources toward building technology that would detect shipments of the drug.
The memo adds that the U.S. Department of Defense has been working to develop capabilities to fight fentanyl and other non-traditional chemical weapons, but “certain operational [countering weapons of mass destruction] entities at DOD and elsewhere have been slow to act due to concern of getting pulled into the counter-narcotics mission.”