Date Published: 24 May 2007

Using drugs as weapons can never be safe

A new report by the British Medical Association (BMA) expresses concern about the growing interest of world governments in using drugs in law enforcement situations, in the belief that these can be ‘non lethal’.

The use of drugs as weapons’, a report produced by the BMA’s Board of Science, concludes that it is impossible to deliver the right drug in the right dose to the right individuals in a way that is both effective and does not cause significant deaths. The report highlights the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 in which the report states that the Russian authorities said that a derivative of the drug fentanyl was delivered through the air-conditioning system to end the siege, killing more than 130 hostages.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, BMA Head of Science and Ethics, 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.

The BMA has sought to alert medical practitioners to the fact that medical knowledge might be called upon for the development of drugs as weapons, as well as antidotes and treatments. Its view is that future advances in drug development might lead to more sophisticated and sinister agents that might not be limited to science fiction.

Key recommendations from the report state that organisations that represent healthcare professionals should:

  • Advocate a multidisciplinary input to policy-making about all weapons and their use in relation to international law or arms control and disarmament, international humanitarian law and human rights law.
  • Ensure that governments and policy-makers in military and law enforcement agencies who may be considering the use of drugs as weapons understand the fundamental scientific, legal and ethical considerations surrounding such use.
  • Work to promote the norms prohibiting the use of poisons, and therefore the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention [BTWC] and the Chemical Weapons Convention [CWC]. They should further promote understanding that the use of drugs as weapons would violate such norms.
  • Advocate that, in the event of those states which are party to the CWC deciding that drugs can be used for law enforcement; these states declare the types and quantities of such agents.
  • Ensure that the consequences of the use of drugs as weapons for military purposes are considered as part of the review of such weapons required by international humanitarian law.
  • Advocate against the use of drugs as weapons and not be involved in the training of military or law enforcement personnel in the administration of drugs as weapons.
  • Recognise the complex ethical dilemmas raised by research on, development of, planning for and use of drugs as weapons and promote professional debate on these matters.
  • Develop guidelines for any healthcare professional involved in research and the development of agents, materials or knowledge that might be put to a dual use.
  • Ensure that the pharmaceutical industry is alert to the possibility that their research and products might be put to malign use, and work with them to prevent this.
  • Encourage their members to abide by professional codes that prohibit involvement in development of dual use technologies or materials.

Source: British Medical Association, UK

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