Militarized Neurotechnology: Incapacitating chemical agents

Two recent pieces in Nature, an opinion and an editorial, discuss how non-lethal neuroactive chemical agents have been used by military forces (e.g. fentanyl-induced unconsciousness) and speculate about the potential development of more non-lethal weaponized chemicals (drug-induced lack of aggression, oxytocin-induced trust). Although using these chemical agents is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an exception allows their use by law enforcement, for example, in domestic riot control (which may or may not include intrastate military actions).

The author of the opinion article is strongly opposed to allowing the military to use non-lethal chemical agents (including incapacitating agents that result in unconsciousness, like fentanyl), and recommends removing the exception for law enforcement. Some people, however, would like to see the CWC be amended to include a new exception permitting incapacitating agents to be used in warfare, which  increasingly takes place in population-dense areas where using lethal force could put civilians’ lives at risk.   The divergent views on policy regarding incapacitating neuroactive chemicals leads me to ask, what about these chemicals makes them more alarming than other weapons?  An understanding about why incapacitating chemical agents are uniquely worrisome should inform how they will be regulated.

Is it that they are difficult to defend against and therefore more effective? Is this a problem even though these weapons create non-lethal alternatives in otherwise deadly situations? Or is our real concern that, by incapacitating, they facilitate brutality toward a defenseless prisoner? If so, then the conversation should be about illegal soldier/police abuse, not the chemical agents themselves. Or is there something inherently unacceptable about militarized neuroactive chemical agents? Is acceptability determined by the intended effect (temporary unconsciousness)? By the mechanism (manipulating the brain)? By the amount of pain (fentanyl was developed as an anesthetic, so likely none)? By the size of its therapeutic index and how safe it is (when used to end a siege in a Moscow theater, fentanyl-derived gas killed 124 of the over 750 hostages)?

Should the Chemical Weapons Convention be amended to prohibit the use of incapacitating chemical agents by law enforcement?  Or to permit their use by the military?  Does permitting them in either context place us at the tip of a too steep slope of biological weapons with more prolonged and devastating effects (attacking fertility or the immune system)?  Or does it save lives?

Comments, thoughts, or answers welcome!

– Kelly Lowenberg