An internal government memorandum attained by Task & Purpose reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering labeling fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).
Dated Feb. 22, 2019, under the title "Use of counter-WMD authorities to combat fentanyl," the memo said the toxic painkiller would be identified as a WMD "when certain criteria are met," and that DHS officials have "long regarded fentanyl as a chemical weapons threat."
Fentanyl is one of the most potent synthetic opioids out there, is considered to be 100 times more potent than morphine. Pain management physicians prescribe fentanyl to patients who experience severe pain but is also sold illegally.
The illegal form of fentanyl has been responsible for a massive spike in opioid-related deaths from 2011 to 2018. In 2017, approximately 28,000 Americans fatally overdosed on the drug.
James McDonnell, an assistant secretary at DHS, detailed in the memo that the drug's high toxicity and widespread availability "are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack."
"In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that '...fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals," he wrote.
McDonnell wrote that "as little as two to three milligrams of fentanyl can induce respiratory depression, respiratory arrest, and possible death." He said some fentanyl analogs are even more dangerous.
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Dan Kaszeta, a chemical and nuclear defense expert, spoke with Task & Purpose about the fentanyl threat being used as a WMD as a "fringe scenario" since there are "literally dozens" of other chemical substance that could be weaponized.
"It reads like somebody is laying the administrative background for trying to tap into pots of money for detecting WMD and decontaminating WMD," Kaszeta told Task & Purpose after viewing the memo. "It's an interdepartmental play for money, that's all it is."
At the end of the memo, McDonnell said his office will brief government officials on combatting the fentanyl WMD threat.
"I think an interagency planning event is a good idea," a senior defense official told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters, though the official concluded it was far more feasible for a threat actor to manufacture sarin or mustard gas. "Anybody with a college level degree in chemistry can manufacture chemical weapons agents."
Read the full memo below: