Senator Seeks Strategy to Prevent Fentanyl Terror Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. senator wants to know if national-security officials are prepared for the “frightening prospect” that the potent opioid fentanyl could be used to attack Americans.

Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan Monday asking whether their agencies have devised strategies to deal with the potential weaponization of fentanyl. The drug is 50 times more potent than heroin, with which it is often mixed. In its strongest form, called carfentanil, it is used legally as an elephant tranquilizer.

Fentanyl has assumed a central role in the opioid-overdose epidemic. Relatively easy to manufacture, the drug is turning up more frequently on the streets amid still-enormous demand for illicit painkillers in the U.S. American deaths linked to fentanyl increased more than 50 percent to 29,406 in 2017, from 19,413 in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Law-enforcement officers and first responders have been warned to handle fentanyl with extreme caution; some have fallen seriously ill after getting it on their skin or clothing.

Markey’s request for information follows reporting last year by Bloomberg News about concern among national-security experts regarding the possibility of fentanyl being used as a weapon of mass destruction. Fentanyl’s effects are difficult to reverse with existing dosages of widely used overdose antidotes such as the Narcan nasal spray.

Those wishing to do harm could use fentanyl “to injure or kill American citizens at home or abroad, or to engage in assassinations,” Markey wrote.

“Addressing this type of multi-dimensional challenge requires a government-wide strategy that brings to bear all elements of American power,” Markey said in the letter. “To my knowledge, no such strategy exists at present for addressing the threat fentanyl poses.”

Representatives for the State and Defense departments didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Fentanyl, typically produced in China and Mexico, is ever-evolving as suppliers try to avoid law-enforcement detection and boost the potency of the drug.

“The combination of high demand, plentiful supply, and alarming potency has made fentanyl dangerously ubiquitous, and raised the prospect of it falling into the hands of those who would use it for even more nefarious purposes,” Markey wrote in a separate letter to Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and Julie Bentz, acting senior director of the National Security Council’s weapons of mass destruction directorate.

Markey asked Bright and Bentz to characterize how fentanyl could be used in an attack, how likely such attacks are to be carried out and what could be done to prevent fentanyl from being used as a weapon. He asked for responses to both of his letters by Feb. 11.

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