At AAAS, a controversial proposal to declare fentanyl a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction'

February 26, 2024

This story was published as part of the 2024 Travel Fellowship Program to AAAS organized by the NASW Education Committee, providing science journalism practice and experience for undergraduate and graduate students.

Story by Simar Bajaj
Mentored and edited by Kelly Tyrrell

DENVER — During a Feb. 17 session on fentanyl at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, speakers advanced a controversial proposal to declare fentanyl a “weapon of mass destruction,” at times making assertions unsupported by evidence.

The proposal was primarily presented by Jim Rauh, founder of Families Against Fentanyl. In 2015, Rauh’s son, Tom, died of a fentanyl overdose after a decade-long battle with addiction. “He didn’t even get the injection done before he hit the ground,” Rauh said. “My wife went and opened the bathroom and found him. She hasn’t been the same since.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to heroin but 50 times more potent, such that experts estimate two milligrams is a lethal dose for a 150-pound human. Given this strength and how cheap it is to manufacture, fentanyl is increasingly found mixed in with cocaine, methamphetamine, and other street drugs, as well as counterfeit prescription pills. In 2021, over 70,000 people died from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, 70 times as many as twenty years ago.

Rauh spent much of his presentation referring to fentanyl as a state-sponsored weapon and instrument for terrorism. To illustrate, he described a situation where “a baggy” of fentanyl was dropped over a stadium parking lot, killing thousands of people. “If we would have flowed that over Gillette Stadium, where people are more packed together and concentrated, we could have killed all of them.”

Donna Nelson, a fellow presenter and professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, interrupted Rauh to remind the audience that what he was describing was a simulation, not an actual attack.

Rauh offered further hypotheticals about how fentanyl could be weaponized: It could have been put in the Boston Marathon bomb to be aerosolized or added to a fire extinguisher to blast deadly gases against an unsuspecting public.

When asked why the United States hasn’t yet seen such fentanyl terrorism, if this drug is truly so easy to weaponize, Rauh demurred, saying “because there’s no evil one of me running around. It will happen.”

Ultimately, Rauh argued that declaring fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction would allow the U.S. government to sanction complicit banks, individuals and criminal organizations; seize their bank accounts; interrupt cartels’ supply chains; and stop such terrorism. He ended his presentation making claims that other experts found preposterous, including conspiratorial allegations around a “Third Opium War” and “tit-for-tat retribution,” referencing complex historical dynamics and modern grievances between the United States, China, and Mexico.

Attendees said afterward they were surprised that the AAAS session included such “propaganda,” where Rauh called the current crisis a reincarnation of 19th-century warfare. “You’re equating a street drug to a weapon of mass destruction, like a nuclear bomb,” said attendee Orchee Syed, a psychology student at Arizona State whose research focuses on the opioid epidemic. “There is no actual evidence that suggests that, when we look at biochemical warfare, any terrorist organization is aiming to use fentanyl or any other addictive substance to target Americans.”

Historically, fentanyl has been used as a weapon at least once in 2002, when it was deployed by Russian troops to incapacitate Chechen rebels but inadvertently killed nearly 120 hostages .

In November 2023, the U.S. government also announced a $111 million contract for the opioid reversal medication, OPVEE®, in case of a potential terrorist attack.

However, in an internal 2018 FBI bulletin obtained by The Intercept, the agency deemed a fentanyl-based attack unlikely, with “no known credible threat reporting.” Concern over the possibility that fentanyl might be used as a chemical weapon remains low in other parts of the federal government as well.

For example, in 2022, 18 state attorneys generals advocated for the federal government to declare fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction, but the Biden administration rejected their argument because it wouldn’t be productive. In response, Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters , “Simply designating it—or any drug—as a WMD would not provide us with any authorities, capabilities, or resources that we do not already have and are already applying to this problem.”

In Congress, Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) similarly introduced a bill that would require the Department of Homeland Security to treat illicit fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, but as of February 2024, the bill had not received any vote, nor been taken up in committee.

At the same time, Ximena Levander, an addiction medicine doctor at Oregon Health and Science University who did not attend this session, emphasized the need for naloxone access, safe consumption sites, and funding for community organizations as some of the urgent policy needs for the fentanyl crisis — not further increasing the criminalization around drug use.

During the question and answer portion of the session, Syed asked Rauh about the societal implications of calling fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction. She was concerned that he was ignoring the risk it would increase policing in minority communities, inflating the number of drug incarcerations and masking a public health problem as a criminal justice issue.

“Whenever people talk about the war on drugs, they like to frame it as a saving-human-lives issue,” said Syed about Rauh and the other presenters at the session. “The fact that they had nothing to say about the social implications is very telling.”

In fact, Syed attended the session expecting a discussion about harm reduction and cutting-edge research on fentanyl, but instead, she got a polemic. “It’s very alarming that something like this is presented at an AAAS conference.”

Simar Bajaj is a senior at Harvard University, studying chemistry and the history of science and has written for The Guardian , Washington Post , TIME, The Atlantic , and NPR . Most recently, Bajaj won Science Story of the Year from the Foreign Press Association and the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Award for Excellence in Science Communications from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Follow him on Twitter @SimarSBajaj.

Edited by: Kelly Tyrrell, University of Madison, Wisconsin

Top Image: Two milligrams of fentanyl alongside a penny for scale. This dose is considered to be lethal for a 150-pound human, with this estimate extrapolated from data in monkeys. Credit: United States Drug Enforcement Administration (Creative Commons License).

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