Photo Credit: Province of British Columbia
By Yan Graf
In April 2021, as the United States was focused on dealing with the Delta wave of COVID-19, a drug advocacy group calling themselves “Families against Fentanyl” quietly submitted a letter to President Joe Biden with one demand: to label fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).
While fentanyl’s deadly nature and its prominent role in the ongoing opioid epidemic is well documented, asking for the substance to be put on the same level as nuclear weapons and anthrax still seems like a reach to some. After all, unlike heroin or crack cocaine, fentanyl isn’t solely used as a narcotic. Fentanyl has legitimate medical uses and can be found in most hospitals around the country. The drug is even on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines—a list that forms the basis for how healthcare providers around the world stock medications and treat patients. Even with fentanyl listed as one of the WHO’s essential medicines, the push to label it a WMD has gained significant traction.
Following the letter from Families against Fentanyl, a slew of high-profile defense officials have thrown their support to the movement, including former Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Ridge and former CIA Director John Brennan. Their concerns are wholly valid. Not only is fentanyl a deadly narcotic but its incredible potency, availability, and potential for weaponization therefore make it a top national security concern.
Used as a narcotic, fentanyl’s capability for mass destruction is incredible. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has obscured the exacerbation of the opioid pandemic, which has seen drug overdoses become the number one cause of death in Americans under 50 years old. Of the 100,000 drug overdose deaths, 75,000 were opioid-related. Opioids killed three times as many Americans as murder and almost twice as many people as car crashes.
Photo Credit: OverHook
While data on the specific breakdown of opioids involved in these 75,000 deaths is unavailable, the CDC and the Harvard School of Public Health both note fentanyl has been the main malefactor in this unprecedented rise.
The alarming number of overdoses fentanyl causes is largely due to its very high potency; a lethal dose is on average only 2 milligrams of the substance. Because of this, fentanyl is easy and highly lucrative to smuggle. Drug dealers, cartels, and other criminal factions can easily transport fentanyl in smaller quantities, which then is used as a cheap substitute for other more popular drugs like heroin and OxyContin. In 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized over 11,000 pounds of fentanyl, a 133% increase over seizures in 2020. Some regions, including south Texas, have seen fentanyl seizures increase by over 1000%. The 11,000 pounds authorities seized in 2021 contains enough lethal doses to kill nearly 2.5 billion people, roughly 7.5 times the entire population of the United States and roughly 30% of the world’s population. These figures only include the fentanyl that CBP has managed to seize. Fentanyl’s ability to be profitably smuggled in tiny amounts means border seizures likely represent only a drop in the bucket of smuggled fentanyl compared to the total amount entering the United States.
What makes fentanyl particularly difficult to crackdown on is the inevitably low cost and easy production. Fentanyl is usually produced in small underground labs and workshops, often in countries where precursor ingredients are easy to obtain. Most fentanyl entering the United States comes from either China or Mexico, where labor, ingredients, and production space more easily converge. A meta-analysis of dark web drug listings performed by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that a gram of fentanyl cost an average of $98 Australian dollars or about $71 USD. Factoring in bulk prices, the Southern District of California’s attorney’s office has estimated that major criminal organizations pay only $32,000 to produce one kilogram of fentanyl. Furthermore, the Southern District estimated such a kilogram to have a street value of over $20 million once converted to pill form, and the potential to kill over 500,000 people. With such profit margins, it’s easy to see why fentanyl has become a drug of choice for major crime syndicates.
While fentanyl is extremely deadly, many argue it cannot be classified as a WMD since it cannot be used as a weapon. Those who die of fentanyl overdoses generally do so after volunarily ingesting the drug, meaning those who do not take drugs should be safe. Unfortunately, not only can fentanyl be made into lethal weapons, but it already has been used on people with deadly efficiency. Given its chemical properties, it can easily be made into an aerosol. Anyone who inhaled fentanyl-laced air could suffer an overdose as a result. This is not just speculation, as fentanyl aerosols have been used in the past as weapons. The most prominent example was in 2002 when a group of Islamist separatists stormed a theatre in downtown Moscow and took 850 spectators hostage. Russian Spetsnaz, or special forces, decided to disarm the terrorists by pumping an unknown gas into the building’s ventilation system before entry. The gas ended up lifting the siege, killing all 40 insurgents, but not before also taking the lives of 130 hostages. While the exact contents of the gas have never been published, many experts agree that it was likely an aerosol made with carfentanil—a derivative of fentanyl nearly 100 times stronger than fentanyl itself. The Moscow theater hostage crisis proves not only that fentanyl-based chemical weapons exist, but also that they can be used effectively to unwittingly sedate and kill hundreds of people. Following the Moscow hostage crisis, carfentanil was placed on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) list of banned chemical warfare agents.
Fentanyl is ubiquitous, cheap to produce, easy to transport and monetize, and can also be made into incredibly potent and deadly weapons. It is time that the Biden administration recognizes the incredible security threat this drug poses. The fact that the United States was willing to spend trillions of dollars tracking down WMDs that never existed in Iraq, but wavers while billions of doses of chemical weapons permeate its borders is a testament to how misplaced government priorities are when it comes to opioids like fentanyl. Fentanyl’s paradox of lethality and medicinal legitimacy makes crafting policy solutions difficult and precarious for institutions that have historically been outmatched in the war on drugs—this should not prevent them from trying.