It's a Gas, Gas, Gas

Fentanyl Story Quietly Absorbed By Media

At first it looked like a cause for international outrage—"Nerve Gas Mystery" was the New York Post's headline on October 28. What had started as a crisis, with about 750 people held hostage in a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, turned into a scandal when Russian authorities revealed they had used an aerosol form of the drug fentanyl to rescue the hostages, about 120 of whom died from overdose. Why did the controversy subside into a muted debate? Perhaps it's because the Pentagon wants to keep fentanyl in its medicine cabinet, in a drawer labeled "nonlethal weapons." If the U.S. denounces Russia for spraying drugs at a crowd, where does that leave us?

Just after the hostages died, talking heads speculated freely about the identity of the killer drug. Was it nerve gas left over from the Cold War, or one of the other substances specifically banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention? On October 29, CNN's Connie Chung asked plaintively, "Could that be used on us? And does the U.S. even know about it? Is the U.S. military using it as well?" The day before, CNN reported, citing Pentagon sources, "It could have been some form of chemical agent with the same chemical structure as heroin or opium. In other words, it's a hallucinogen."

Then suddenly the Russians dropped the veil. The killer drug wasn't nerve gas, or heroin, or BZ, the U.S. Army hallucinogen that dates back to the 1950s. It wasn't an approved riot-control drug like tear gas, pepper spray, or mace. It was a derivative of fentanyl, which is also a pharmaceutical drug manufactured in the U.S., injected as an anesthetic during surgery, and prescribed in patch and lollipop form to treat chronic pain. While the Russian authorities insist the gas is not in itself lethal, every doctor in the U.S. knows an overdose of medical fentanyl can kill you. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the effects of the fentanyl class "are indistinguishable from those of heroin, with the exception that the fentanyls may be hundreds of times more potent."

That mystery drug? Shh. It's legal in the U.S.

With one mystery solved, another unfolded: How did a carefully controlled hospital narcotic become a military experiment in mass anesthesia? And why is everyone nodding their heads in consent? On October 29, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times published some clues. According to documents obtained by the Austin-based Sunshine Project, the Pentagon is currently studying the use of fentanyl, Valium, and other psychoactive drugs as "incapacitating," "nonlethal" weapons. (The feds deny conducting such research, but documents show the work is being contracted out by the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. A recent report outlines proposed plans for Valium-laced pepper spray, carfentanyl dart guns, psychoactive chewing gum, and drug granules encased in a shell that can be fired from a mortar at thousands of granules per round.)

To put it another way, products originally sold as medicine have now become weapons in the hands of the U.S. military. For some, this is a comical revelation that gives new meaning to the terms "drug war" and "military-industrial complex." But for people who take warfare more seriously than a James Bond movie, it raises a serious question: Does manufacturing drug weapons violate international treaties?

According to experts polled by The New York Times, the Pentagon's secret drug weapons are legal for law enforcement and riot control. But Sunshine Project director Edward Hammond says they are not. In September, Hammond issued a press release accusing the U.S. of violating the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The Sunshine Project called on Congress to freeze funding for the "nonlethal" research, declassify related documents, and hold the top dogs responsible. The group even called for a UN inspection team.

"We can present hard evidence for an illicit and shameful chemical weapons program in the U.S.," said Hammond. "If the U.S. invades Iraq and uses these weapons, we may witness the depravity of the U.S. waging chemical warfare against Iraq to prevent it from developing chemical weapons." As with other aspects of U.S. unilateralism, this predicted line of action would not only be hypocritical, but would also set a dangerous global example.

Since the hostage crisis ended, fentanyl gas and the Pentagon's nonlethal weapons program have received considerable attention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, Time, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Many reporters are now quoting Hammond and citing his documents. But several angles deserve more attention.

The most important is the question of whether drug weapons are prohibited by international treaties, or are legal, as long as they are used for crowd control, but not warfare. (That's the so-called loophole.) Aside from footnoting a possible treaty violation, reporters have yet to fully investigate the arguments pro and con. In an October 30 editorial, The New York Times hemmed and hawed about the potential downsides of drug gases, including fatalities and treaty violations, and then concluded that "in an age of terrorism, it would surely be desirable to develop a mist that could put people to sleep quickly without harming them permanently." Ah, poppies!

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