Declare Fentanyl a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Martha Boneta, When it comes to Fentanyl, it is hard for us to think beyond the sheer human tragedy.

It is hard for us to think beyond the 32,000 lost to overdoses from this drug in 2018 – up from 28,000 the year before.

It is hard for us to think beyond the suffering James Rauh of Cleveland has endured. His son, Thomas, injured himself in a roller blading accident and was prescribed opioids to deal with the pain. The son became addicted, turned to heroin and died when unbeknownst to him; he injected a dose of pure fentanyl that was provided by the drug dealer.

It’s horrific to think Thomas Rauh died of a drug that was ordered from China over the internet and delivered by the US Postal Service. And most of the people who overdose, do not choose to take Fentanyl; rather, it is surreptitiously added to other drugs by unscrupulous dealers looking to make their product stretch further, as well as introduce the highly addictive synthetic opioid and increase their profits.

It’s hard to think beyond the economic damage done by this drug – the Council of Economic Advisers put the cost of the opioid epidemic at $2.5 trillion over the four years ending in 2019.

But think beyond the tragedy and cost we must – because the threat is, incredibly, bigger than this. It has become – in practice although not yet in legal force – a weapon of mass destruction. It is being unleashed on our population now in tiny, controlled doses by those seeking to profit at others’ expense. But groups in the Middle East and elsewhere have expressed interest in obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and this drug has proven its viability.

When Chechen terrorists took over a theater in Moscow in 2002, authorities pumped a chemical through the vents. The chemical killed all the militants and 130 of the 850 hostages. The Russians never identified the substance they used, but it is believed to be Carfentanil, among the most dangerous of the 1,400 known analogues to Fentanyl.

Carfentanil is 40 times stronger than Fentanyl but 10,000 times stronger than morphine and 5,000 times stronger than heroin. Yet, heroin costs 15 times as much, which makes it almost an economic imperative for drug dealers to use Carfentanil, if they can obtain it, to “cut” their own drugs and deliver a more intense high to their customers.

A piece of Carfentanil the size of a grain of salt can be fatal. A kilogram could kill up to 50 million people – roughly the population of South Korea. Developed as a tranquilizer for elephants and hippos, Carfentanil is so toxic zoo officials wear hazmat suits to sedate the animals because even one drop in a human eye or nose could be fatal. The 52,000 pounds of its less-toxic cousin Fentanyl the Mexican Navy seized off one ship in 2019 is enough to kill 11.5 billion people, or 1.5 times the world’s population.

Today, Fentanyl and its analogues are produced almost exclusively by small pharmaceutical firms in China. The Trump administration basically forced China to outlaw the production and distribution of Fentanyl, but the laws are not enforced and widely ignored. Drug cartels in Mexico also have begun to produce Fentanyl with help from the Chinese, and there is even evidence it is being produced in the United States with smuggled ingredients and equipment.

The Department of Homeland Security, which has issued a Material Threat Determination on Fentanyl, sees the drug as a “potential mass casualty weapon” whose “high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack,” and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission sees it as “a form of chemical warfare.”

These agencies have it right. Chemical weapons should be seen as weapons of mass destruction, and, given the definition in federal statute of a weapon of mass destruction – any weapon “designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination or impact of toxin or poisonous chemicals or their precursors” – Fentanyl and its analogues definitely qualify.

In honor of his son and the hundreds of thousands affected by this scourge, James Rauh has begun a petition drive to urge the US government to declare Fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction. This would enable the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Defense and other relevant federal agencies to work together more effectively and produce the necessary administrative directives to eliminate this threat. I have signed it, and I hope you will too.

The US policy for use of nuclear weapons has two prongs – it says we will shoot first if we perceive a threat and that we treat chemical weapons the same as nuclear. As James Rauh knows all too well, it’s too late for us to shoot first in the war on Fentanyl. But it is not too late to treat the threat Fentanyl and its analogues pose as the weapons of mass destruction they are.

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