Fentanyl: A Weapon of Mass Destruction


By Dr. Syed Javaid Khurshid, Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Pakistan

Fentanyl was first developed in 1959 and introduced in the market in 1960. It is a powerful synthetic opioid approved by the FDA in 1968, to be used as a pain medication and anesthetic, similar to morphine but 50-100 times more potent. It is a legally manufactured and a prescription drug, but also illegally made and sold on the streets as a recreational drug mixed with cocaine or heroin.

Fentanyl poses several health risks, particularly when used recreationally. Up to 2020, Fentanyl was used by prescription by doctors who are experienced in treating chronic pain in cancer patients or as anesthesia. Fentanyl intravenous or intramuscular injections are indicated for short-term analgesia during induction, maintenance, and recovery from general or regional anesthesia because of its ability to reduce the coughing effect in a long duration of analgesia. These injections are also used with a neuroleptic for premedication, induction, and as an adjunct to the maintenance of anesthesia. Finally, fentanyl intravenous or intramuscular injections are used with oxygen for anesthesia in high-risk patients.

The risk of overdose is very high when injected, as it enters the bloodstream quickly and can cause a person to become unconscious within minutes. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the risks associated with fentanyl use and to seek medical help immediately.

Fentanyl as a chemical and drug can be described as a chemical or biological weapon at the same time. Fentanyl’s high potency has also made it a common adulterant in illicit drugs, it has been used as a chemical/bioweapon in different countries such as in Russia in 2002 and in Malaysia in 2017. In both instances, the victims of this attack experienced nausea, vomiting, and respiratory depression, which can be fatal if left untreated.  In 2017, about 47,600 overdose deaths occurred in the United States involving some opioids. Whereas, about 11 Canadians are killed every day due to overdose of this Opioid. 

The use of fentanyl as a bioweapon is of great concern, not only due to its potency but also because of its potential to cause mass casualties. The WHO called on countries to take preventative measures to ensure that the drug should not be weaponized and used as a weapon of mass destruction.  

The compound has been weaponized before, but with a comparatively small death toll that does not stack up to other WMDs. On July 29, 2021, Republican Lauren Boebert, spoke at a news conference held by members of the House Freedom Caucus, Capitol Hill in Washington. Previously on June 13, 2022, Boebert, a Colorado Congresswoman, Boebert introduced new legislation that would qualify Fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, akin to nuclear weapons. Boebert states, “It is time to call Fentanyl what it is: a weapon of mass destruction that is destroying our nation.” Fentanyl killed 900 Coloradans and 91,799 Americans in 2020, and some are citing concerns that the already deadly drug could be weaponized.

Given the catastrophic effect WMDs have on human populations, we took a deep look into Fentanyl’s weaponization in the past and how it compares to other WMDs.

This package contains 30 Actiq lozenges (fentanyl) each containing 600 micrograms of active increment (fentanyl citrate, as base.) This package is usually stored in a pharmacy, and only rarely is given to an end-of-life-patient in order to help them avoid going to the pharmacy too often. ©DanielTahar

Fentanyl has been used as a weapon before, not as a weapon of mass destruction as Boebert argues, but as a Russian counter-terrorism tactic. She cites a hostage crisis in October of 2002 as her motivation, where forty Chechen terrorists seized Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater and more than 800 hostages. The explosives were scattered across the theatre, and the terrorists threatened to detonate unless the Russian campaign in Chechnya was brought to an end. After days of failed negotiations and the Chechens’ threat to start killing hostages, Russian security forces decided to pump an aerosolized combination of two fentanyl analogs into the theatres, to incapacitate everyone inside. All of the Chechen terrorists and about 130 of the 800 total hostages were killed in the process, but the majority of the hostages survived.

The international reaction to the Russian response to the crisis was largely positive, as this was in a world where 9/11 was still a fresh memory and Russia was considered a friendly country. “Context is important here”, said John Caves Jr., an expert on biological and chemical defense for the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. “There was great concern that the Chechens would kill most of the hostages by blowing up the building. That only about 130 hostages died could be considered a win, given the circumstances”.

For comparison, the B83 nuclear bomb currently in use by the United States Military has a yield of about 1,200 kilotons of TNT, putting it at about 80 times the explosive yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. In just a single detonation, 135,000 people were dead or dying. Days later, 64,000 people were annihilated similarly in Nagasaki, Japan. Fentanyl killed over 90 thousand people in 2020, meaning that two nuclear detonations in just three days killed over twice as many people as Fentanyl killed in 2020.

Chemical weapons deployed since World War-I have claimed more than one million lives worldwide, and many of those who survived chemical weapon attacks are permanently disfigured or disabled. However, not all chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction. Caves argue that fentanyl should be classified as a potential chemical weapon, but not as a weapon of mass destruction. “It is not evident that there is any basis or need for officially designating fentanyl compounds as weapons of mass destruction, however, that may be defined”, said Caves. “But it is clear that there is at least a risk that Fentanyl compounds could be used as chemical weapons”. 

Boebert’s legislation would only target the illicit use of fentanyl, and will not interfere with legal usage. The bill would also allocate resources for technological development, suggested Fentanyl-detecting sensors, and analytical data-based decision-making. ”Co-Sponsors of the bill include Representatives Mary Miller (IL-15), Dan Bishop (NC-09), Bill Posey (FL-08), Ralph Norman (SC-05), Paul Gosar (AZ-04), Andrew Clyde (GA-09), Clay Higgins (LA-03), Barry Moore (AL-02), and Troy Nehls (TX-22).

In my opinion, Fentanyl should be regulated under UN resolution 1540 as it can be used in Non-Conventional Terrorism. The Technical Committee of the Chemical Weapon Convention and Biological Weapon Convention in its upcoming meeting has to look into what type of legislation should be introduced to stop Fentanyl usage as WMD. 

About the Author:

Dr. Syed Javaid Khurshid is an independent think tank professional and Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University of Pakistan. He is an expert in WMD and CBRN. 

Related articles

Recent articles