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Fentanyl is a Dangerous Drug, Not a Weapon of War

US calls to add fentanyl to the Chemical Weapons Convention politicize arms control and undermine efforts to curb chemical warfare.

Words: Scott Paul
Pictures: CrowN

With all the bizarre, partisan proposals circulating in Washington, DC, it takes a lot to elicit surprise: Enter the Project Precursor Act. This Republican-led act would require the Biden administration to use its voice, vote, and influence to designate fentanyl as a “chemical weapon” under the Chemical Weapons Convention. What elevates it beyond ridiculous to dangerous is that congressional Democrats seem to be complacently nodding along.

The bill claims to interrupt the fentanyl trade and protect Americans from its dangers. Fentanyl is one of the most severe threats to communities across the United States, and it deserves a powerful, whole-of-government response. Unfortunately, the Project Precursor Act is little more than an ill-conceived exercise in political posturing. 

Politicizing Arms Control

In his statement introducing the bill, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) made a powerful case that fentanyl’s impact is similar to that of a weapon of mass destruction. But he seems to have forgotten that he is dealing in metaphor. Rather than outline a thoughtful, targeted strategy to manage a serious public health crisis, GOP leadership is opting to undercut a landmark arms control treaty that is a vital tool for preventing literal chemical attacks. 

Those attacks are rare largely because of the success of the Chemical Weapons Convention, one of the most effective arms control agreements in history. After chemical weapons killed 1.3 million soldiers in World War I and millions of people at Nazi extermination camps, there have been only a handful of documented uses of chemical weapons since the end of World War II. In many ways, war has become more brutal for civilians, and the law of war has become increasingly contested, but the taboo of chemical weapons remains nearly universally respected.

US advocacy for adding fentanyl to the Chemical Weapons Convention is not only a slippery slope toward more politicization of arms control but also toward actual conflict.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which implements the treaty, has overseen the destruction of over 99% of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. It won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. But it’s not suited to monitor controlled substances. Asking it to do so would only divert resources from its core mission and invite similar bad-faith, politically motivated efforts from other governments. 

US advocacy for adding fentanyl to the Chemical Weapons Convention is not only a slippery slope toward more politicization of arms control but also toward actual conflict. Past presidents have proposed the use of military force to eliminate or deter the use of chemical weapons, with or without congressional authorization

There is no margin for loose talk on these subjects in light of Republican proposals to take an increasingly militarized approach to problems with Mexico. Two members of Congress have introduced legislation to authorize the use of military force against the cartels, an approach proposed by President Donald Trump while he was in office. In looking to appear tough on fentanyl, congressional action today may have consequences for communities in Mexico and servicemembers in the United States in the future. Even if the Project Precursor Act never becomes law, having the House on record naming fentanyl as a chemical weapon could be cited in a legal argument for military action in the future. This is a risk we should not take.

Lawmakers Must Embrace Real Solutions, Not Extremist Posturing 

A group of civil society organizations with missions ranging from drug policy to peace to international human rights are asking members of Congress to oppose the bill. But so far, congressional Democrats have not voiced their opposition in the face of this reckless stunt. Facing a series of votes on hawkish measures that take a military-first approach to a variety of multidimensional challenges, some appear concerned that voting no on all of them would negatively impact their electoral prospects. Rather than confront this farce head-on, these members of Congress seem dead-set on finding their way to yes on something, no matter how preposterous the substance is. 

Opposing the Project Precursor Act should not imply a lack of seriousness regarding the opioid crisis or the dangers of fentanyl. The drug is terribly dangerous — perhaps as dangerous as sarin or mustard gas. These are all potentially destructive and deadly threats, but they are not the same. Suggesting otherwise is as insulting to communities that are fighting the opioid crisis as to those that have endured the horrors of chemical warfare. For their sakes, Congress needs to come to its senses quickly.

Scott Paul

Scott Paul is Oxfam America’s Associate Director, Peace and Security.

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