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BMJ. 2007 May 26; 334(7603): 1073.
PMCID: PMC1877963

Doctors condemn use of drugs as weapons

Drugs can never be used safely to enforce the law, say doctors in a report published this week by the BMA.

The report highlights the increasing interest among some governments in the use of “tactical pharmacology” or “non-lethal” drugs as weapons. Doctors need to be aware that using medical knowledge for hostile purposes puts human lives at risk and aware of the ethical implications of taking part in developing drugs for non-medical purposes, as well as antidotes and treatments for victims of chemical law enforcement, it says.

The report concludes, “The agent whereby people could be incapacitated without risk of death in a tactical situation does not exist and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future.”

The authors recount events of the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 when 800 people were taken hostage by a group of Chechen men and women. After two and a half days Russian authorities said that a derivative of the drug fentanyl was delivered through the air conditioning system to end the siege. This killed more than 130 hostages either in the raid or in the days afterwards.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said, “It is important to remember that target groups are likely to comprise people of varying weights, sizes, and ages; some may be pregnant or have pre-existing medical conditions. It is virtually impossible to control the amount of a drug delivered or to ensure it acts without producing toxic effects or causing death.

“It is disingenuous of governments to describe drugs as non-lethal—there is no difference between a drug and a poison except the dose. Using drugs as a method of law enforcement may constitute a violation of international conventions which prohibit the use of chemical weapons. This is of great concern to the BMA.”

Many governments, including that of the United Kingdom, have policies and development programmes related to the use of drugs as weapons despite an apparent desire to limit their availability globally, says the report. The BMA hopes its report will stimulate debate among the medical profession and policy makers about the use of drugs as weapons.

Two weapons conventions—the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention—contain some ambiguity about whether some drugs could be used as weapons or for law enforcement. The BMA report says, “It is vital that the international community makes every effort to ensure that these weapons conventions remain intact. The development and deployment of drugs as weapons for whatever reason risks undermining the norms these conventions represent.”

The report also recommends that guidelines should be developed for healthcare professionals who are involved in research and development of agents, materials, or knowledge that might be put to a dual use. The drug industry too needs to be alert to the possibility that their research and products might be put to malign use, and staff should work to prevent this happening.

Notes

The Use of Drugs as Weapons: the Concerns and Responsibilities of Healthcare Professionals is accessible at www.bma.org.uk.


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group