Republicans Want to Declare Fentanyl a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction.’ That’s a Terrible Idea.

Republicans and some Democrats are pressuring Biden to classify fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Experts say it will exacerbate the war on drugs.
fentanyl-weapon-of-mass-destruction
Syringes illustrated to look like missiles in front of the American flag. (Collage by Hunter French / Images via Getty)

UPDATE 9/23: In a call with reporters Thursday, Rahul Gupta, director of the National Drug Control Policy at the White House, suggested the government is not considering declaring fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)

“Simply designating it—or any drug—as a WMD would not provide us with any authorities, capabilities, or resources that we do not already have and are already applying to this problem,” Gupta said, as reported by Substance.

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He said the government is already targeting cartels and that fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances “are already under the strictest legal controls in the United States.”

As the U.S. continues to face unprecedented overdose deaths mostly tied to fentanyl, people on both sides of the political aisle are pushing to label the synthetic opioid a “weapon of mass destruction.” 

Local sheriffs, Republican lawmakers—including Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert—and even some Democrats have recently put pressure on President Joe Biden to make the change. But addiction experts have been clear on the strategies needed to address the crisis, like accessible naloxone, safe consumption sites, and a safe supply of regulated drugs. They say the potential policy will only exacerbate an out-of-control epidemic.

“That sounds like a dumb idea,” said Dr. Andrew Stolbach, an emergency physician and medical toxicologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “It’s not a terrorist weapon, and I think if we try to treat it like a terrorist problem, if we try to treat it like a weapon of mass destruction, we’re handling it the completely wrong way.” 

Attorneys General Ashley Moody, a Florida Republican, and William Tong, a Connecticut Democrat, as well as 16 others sent a letter to Biden on Sept. 14 urging him to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction to protect Americans “from a mass casualty event.”

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“Given fentanyl’s lethality, the amounts being interdicted and seized are inconsistent with what one would expect from drug trafficking activity and are indicative of either purposeful conspiracy to murder Americans or an effort to stockpile a dangerous chemical weapon,” the letter said. 

The letter doesn’t provide any evidence of stockpiling but cites the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, during which Russian troops released a gas believed to contain fentanyl analogs into a theater filled with hostages trapped by Chechen rebels; the gas incapacitated the rebels but also killed more than 120 hostages. 

By definition, fentanyl could be considered a weapon of mass destruction because it’s a lethal chemical, according to a 2019 study from the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. But the study’s author found no evidence of a net benefit in changing fentanyl’s designation to a weapon of mass destruction. 

The letter to Biden also states that labeling fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction would require the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate with the Department of Defense. 

VICE News did not receive a response from the Department of Homeland Security on if there’s a concern someone might be stockpiling fentanyl for a chemical attack in the U.S. In response to a request for comment, the Drug Enforcement Administration referred VICE News to the White House.  

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In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security was considering labeling fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction, according to an internal memo, which said that the drug’s “high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack.” 

In June, Boebert introduced the ‘‘Fentanyl Is a WMD Act,” which would require the Department of Homeland Security to treat fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. In a press release touting the bill, Boebert blamed the “porous southern border” for allowing fentanyl into the country. 

“There is no way around it—the Biden Border Crisis is killing Americans. It is time to call fentanyl what it is: a weapon of mass destruction that is destroying our nation,” she said. 

Nearly 108,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021, with more than 71,000 deaths linked to illicitly-manufactured fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the concern around fentanyl has grown, so has fear-mongering rhetoric from law enforcement and politicians, including the myth that people can overdose simply from touching fentanyl and that colored fentanyl is being made to target kids. 

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Eric Reinhart, an anthropologist of law and public health and resident physician at Northwestern University, said that decades of prohibition is what’s made the drug supply become so toxic in the first place—and that designating fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction is a red herring that takes away from the solutions needed to help people with opioid addictions, including universal healthcare, access to regulated drugs like prescription heroin, and better scientific research.

“We have a mass casualty event in the U.S. already, and it's not because of Russia or Colombia or any foreign nation. It's because of U.S. criminal legal policies that have manufactured an absurd opioid overdose epidemic,” he said. 

Reinhart added that the declaration would make it easier for Pentagon funding to be used for “domestic war-making against the poorest Americans.” 

“We've been investing almost all resources into policing systems and military suppression of illicit substances. It doesn't work. If it did, we would be a country with one of the lowest opioid overdose rates in the world. And instead, we're the leading opioid overdose country.” 

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter. 

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