Thursday, August 23, 2007

The use of drugs as weapons

The British Medical Association has issued an interesting report on the current and potential future use of drugs in combat and by the military more generally. The report can be found here: Download report as a PDF

The key points are:

that the use of drugs as weapons is simply not feasible without generating a significant mortality among the target population. Whether this is a consideration of either pharmacology, toxicology or both will depend on the reader’s point of view. 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. In such a situation, it is and will continue to be almost impossible to deliver the right agent to the right people in the right dose without exposing the wrong people, or delivering the wrong dose. Countermeasures may be easy to apply if such an attack is expected. This brings into question whether drugs can be used for law enforcement or any other tactical situation in which deaths and injuries should be minimised. From this many ethical considerations flow which include:

* the involvement of healthcare professionals in planning and executing an attack using a drug as a weapon
* gathering data about the effects of the weapon in question
* the role of medicine, including medical knowledge, in weapon development
* the dual responsibility of doctors to do no harm on one hand and on the other to support national security
* the role of healthcare professionals in upholding international law.

Ethical considerations aside, the BMA views the interest of governments in the use of drugs as weapons as dangerous for three reasons.

1. The international legal norms which protect humanity from poison and the deliberate spread of disease which have been put in place by decades of negotiation risk being undermined.
2. Widespread but responsible deployment of drugs as weapons would inevitably result in their reaching the hands of state or non-state actors for whom lethality among those targeted is not of concern. This would simply be chemical warfare with a medical label.
3. Using existing drugs as weapons means knowingly moving towards the top of a ‘slippery slope’ at the bottom of which is the spectre of ‘militarization’ of biology; this could include intentional manipulation of peoples' emotions, memories, immune responses or even fertility.

While the report focuses on the use of chemicals and drugs as weapons, an interesting post here: Bioweapons of the present and the future : The body as battlefield Also discusses the usage of advances in biomedical & neurological sciences on soldiers rather than the enemy.

This malign use of neuroscience may not be restricted to enemies or opponents. In Iraq, US-Alliance forces used drugs on their own soldiers to heighten alertness. We may soon see troops go into action with chemically-heightened aggression, as well as resistance to fear, pain and fatigue (3). It is not science fiction to suggest we might see military pharmacology that can remove feelings of guilt or post-traumatic stress. The economic temptation is strong, since drug-induced, guilt-free military personnel would save resources; five times more soldiers suffer mental than physical wounds in war.

These dual usages of medical technology in warfare seems a worrying but inevitable trend, competition and availability lead to a simple conclusion, if you don't do it, your enemy might.

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