The powerful ingredient driving heroin deaths in the U.S. was once used as a chemical weapon by Russian special forces in an operation that killed more than 120 civilians in 2002.
When Chechen separatists took over 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater in 2002, Russian special forces employed the use of a chemical agent that successfully neutralized the separatists but killed civilians in the process. Russian officials never specified the substance they used, but test samples from survivors turned up positive for carfentanil, a synthetic opioid derived from fentanyl that is normally reserved for tranquilizing large animals, according to the Associated Press.
Russian authorities fed carfentanil into the theater through the ventilation, which ended up killing more than 120 of the hostages. British researchers who tested the clothing and urine samples of survivors noted in their report past Russian interest in using chemicals like carfentanil and fentanyl, known to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, as weapons. A Russian general quoted in the report wrote that fentanyl delivers a “knock-out blow” to targets.
Russians are not alone in experimenting with and employing fentanyl and other synthetic opioids as chemical weapons. Israel has used weaponized fentanyl in operations carried out by the Mossad. Mossad agents sprayed fentanyl into the ear of Khaled Mashaal, the leader of the terrorist group Hamas, in a 1997 botched assassination attempt. He was later revived with the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
A Jane’s Intelligence Review report quoted an Israeli official in 1997 as saying weaponized fentanyl had a “100 percent success rate,” according to the AP.
Scientists in the U.S. also have a long history with fentanyl, which researchers first looked at as a potential weapon to incapacitate enemies in the 1960s. Researchers later developed aerosolized carfentanil which they tested on primates. A contractor for the Department of Justice even tested a “fentanyl gun” in 1997, which used projectiles coated in the substance.
Fentanyl is now spreading death in drug supplies throughout the country. The painkiller is regularly cut into heroin powder and is even manufactured into pills to look like prescription medication. In addition to opioids, authorities are finding deadly levels of fentanyl in cocaine and anxiety pills.
“If anything can be likened to a weapon of mass destruction in what it does to a community, it’s fentanyl,” DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley said in January, according to ABC News. “Fentanyl is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country. It is 40 to 50 times stronger than street-level heroin. A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you.”
Less than half a teaspoon of pure fentanyl is enough to kill 10 people.
Dealers continue to turn to it in droves to cut into their heroin batches because of how cheap it is. While a kilogram of heroin from a Mexican cartel will cost a domestic supplier roughly $64,000, they can order a kilogram of fentanyl through the mail from China for only $2,000.
Fatal overdoses from heroin quadrupled over the last five years, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics Friday. They say the massive increase in heroin and general opioid abuse in the U.S. since 2010 is driven by lower drug prices and ingredients with higher potency, like fentanyl.
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