Last year, the White House publicly shot down a controversial proposal from Republican lawmakers to designate fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Though President Biden declined to issue the executive order granting the WMD designation, which would have come with extraordinary powers to combat the scourge, federal agencies — including the Department of Defense, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security — had begun preparing for a fentanyl WMD attack as far back as 2018, the Intercept reports. Government documents show that national security agencies have for years been advancing the narrative that the drug could pose a WMD threat, going so far as conducting military exercises in preparation for an attack by a fentanyl weapon. The push to declare fentanyl a WMD — and the security state approaching the drug that way even absent the declaration — has been a boon to federal agencies’ budgets. It’s not clear, however, that reimagining the highly toxic drug as a superlethal weapon has had any effect of combating the ongoing crisis of fentanyl overdoses. What it has done is help kick off a panic.
Even as it produced material warning of a fentanyl weapon, the government at times assessed such an attack as unlikely. An internal 2018 FBI bulletin calls the possibility of a chemical attack using fentanyl a “low probability high impact event.” The intelligence bulletin, marked “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” and not disseminated to the public, cites a since-removed Drug Enforcement Administration fentanyl briefing guide for first responders. Under a red, boldfaced “WARNING,” the briefing guide incorrectly cautioned that mere incidental skin contact or inhalation of even just a small amount of fentanyl can result in death. DEA blasted out the warning to law enforcement agencies around the U.S., including the FBI, generating panic among police. DEA later revised its guidance after the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology issued a joint report concluding that “the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low.” The hysteria continues. Around 80 percent of police officers surveyed believe you can overdose by touching fentanyl, according to three different studies.