U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to officially declare the American opioid epidemic a public health emergency Thursday, as part of an effort to combat a crisis that is killing an estimated 142 Americans a day. Reports, however, indicate he will not go as far as classifying it a national emergency, meaning no new funding will be allotted. But, as former Acting Director of the CIA and Cipher Brief Expert Michael Morell wrote last month, the threat the opioid crisis poses extends beyond public health: it is a national security threat. In light of the President’s announcement Thursday, The Cipher Brief revisits Morell’s analysis today.
On October 23, 2002, dozens of armed Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater and took some 850 people hostage. Because of the layout of the theater, the number of extremists, and the large amount of explosives in their possession, a SWAT-type raid was out of the question.
When two of the hostages were murdered almost three days into the crisis, the Russian government chose to pump an incapacitating agent into the theater via the air vents. But the agent was too toxic, and while all the extremists were killed, so too were some 130 of the hostages. The Russians have never publicly identified the particular chemical agent used, but it is widely believed to have been carfentanil.
Fast forward to June 2016, when authorities in Vancouver, Canada seized one kilogram of carfentanil. The agent was sent via mail from China to an address in Canada, and it was hidden in a package that was declared on a customs form to be printer accessories. It was the largest seizure of carfentanil to date.
Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid, is highly toxic. The drug is 10,000 times stronger than morphine and 5,000 times more potent than heroin. Only 20 micrograms, roughly the size of a grain of salt, can be fatal. The seizure in Vancouver was enough to kill 50 million people – every man, women, and child in Canada.
Carfentanil was developed in the 1970s as a tranquilizer for large animals – elephants and hippos. Dr. Rob Hilsenroth, the executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians said last year that carfentanil is so powerful that zoo officials wear protective gear “just a little bit short of a hazmat suit” when sedating animals because even one drop in a person’s eye or nose can be fatal.
The extreme lethality of carfentanil has led most countries to classify it as a chemical weapon. It is banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Program, said it plainly and simply last year: “It’s a weapon.”
So, what is a chemical weapon doing on the streets of Canada – and the U.S.? Over the past year, drug dealers have learned that they can cut carfentanil into the heroin they sell to increase the “high” and to increase profits, as heroin is 15 times more expensive than carfentanil. In a public warning last fall, the Drug Enforcement Administration said “carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities” and that it “has been linked to a significant number of overdose deaths in various parts of the country.”
The drug is largely produced in China by thousands of small chemical firms and shipped either through Mexico and Canada to the United States or directly through the mail system, often after an order is placed online. It is also produced by drug cartels in Mexico (with key ingredients imported from China). China, working with the United States, is now regulating carfentanil production and export, but the large number of producers there means the problem has only been reduced, not resolved.
There are signs that the production of carfentanil could be moving here as well, particularly after the Chinese government’s crack down. Some of equipment used to make carfentanil in China has been found in the United States. And the key ingredient to fentanyl – a less potent cousin of carfentanil – has also been discovered in the U.S., suggesting that fentanyl is being manufactured here. In May, federal agents in Massachusetts seized 50 kilograms of a key chemical used to make fentanyl.
The public discussion about – and the government focus on – carfentanil is all about the dangerous role it plays in the contemporary drug epidemic – with good reason. Drug overdoses, with a growing number caused by carfentanil, are now the leading cause of death from injury in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and homicides. Some police and paramedics have themselves overdosed after coming into contact with carfentanil.
But the drug also constitutes a significant threat to national security. It is a weapon of mass destruction.
Indeed, carfentanil is the perfect terrorist weapon. It is readily available in large quantities. It comes in several forms – including tablets, powder, and spray. It can be absorbed through the skin or through inhalation. It acts quickly. And, it is deadly. Peter Ostrovsky, a senior official of the Immigration and Customs Service, said last fall, “Could it be weaponized? Yeah, it could be weaponized.” In short, a single terrorist attack using carfentanil could kill thousands of Americans.
And, there has been little focus on the drug as a terrorist weapon. In the Director of National Intelligence’s 2017 Worldwide Threat hearings, the issue of synthetic opioids was treated as part of the international drug problem, not as a terrorism risk. No one from either the Obama or Trump administrations has spoken publicly about the threat. The same is true for Congress. There has been little to no work by think tanks or the media on the terrorism risks.
This needs to change. There needs to be an NSC-directed policy and strategy on getting our arms around the national security risks of carfentanil – including increasing the focus of the Intelligence Community as well as the law enforcement and homeland security communities. There needs to be a focus by Congress, in part, to oversee the work of the Executive Branch. There needs to be work done at the state and local level that is integrated with what is happening at the federal level. There is a great deal to do.
Both al Qaeda and ISIS have said they are interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction and that they would use them if they acquired them. Osama bin Laden called it a religious duty to do so. ISIS has used chemical weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. And now such a weapon is easily available to them. It would be a terrible tragedy if foreign terrorists were to use the consequences of our own domestic drug problem against us – particularly when it is so easy to see what might be coming.