It's a Gas, Gas, Gas
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!
The Washington Post and Newsday have tried in vain to determine the exact nature of the gas used in Russia. Maybe Congress should be asking the Pentagon who makes this lethal gas and what countries possess it. After all, Israel used fentanyl gas in 1997. In an assassination attempt widely reported at the time, two Mossad agents approached a Hamas political leader and sprayed a variation of fentanyl into his ear. (The Baltimore Sun mentioned that story recently, but no one else has.)
Israel isn't the only U.S. ally with access to secret drug weapons: The Sunshine Project has evidence that the United Kingdom has looked into developing incapacitating gases. On October 31, the Times of London and Financial Times reported that the British government admits doing such research in the past, but says the research has now stopped. (Don't look for the U.K. connection in the U.S. media.)
"Most of the reporting that has been done on this issue in the U.S. has been off-base," Hammond told the Voice on a phone call from Geneva, where he has been attending the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention. "The media focus on whether or not the U.S. should develop this kind of technology missed the whole point of why this technology is broadly considered something beyond the pale of law and morality," based on a number of incidents dating back to World War I.
Hammond continued, "The failure of the U.S. and the U.K. to say anything about what happened, coupled with the knowledge that they, too, are interested in and developing this kind of weapon, will effectively result in the legitimization of using drugs in warfare and in many other situations of civil unrest."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Women Create Their Own Opportunities in New York's Growing Weed Industry
Sat., Oct. 10, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 8:00pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00am
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00am
- Read J. Hoberman’s 1983 Cover Story on Chantal Akerman’s 'Jeanne Dielman'
- Uncut: A Look at the Wacky, Wrinkly World of Foreskin Restoration