Prozac for Crowd Control?

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I’ve heard of a number of off-label uses for antidepressants, but turning them into non-lethal weapons for crowd control is a new one for me. The Soft-Kill Solution in the March Harper’s describes research on the use of “calmatives” or central nervous system depressants for just this purpose.

The article describes the history of the use of non-lethal methods by both the military and civilian law enforcement. The following quote refers to a research report that was published online in 2002 by the Sunshine Project.

As [the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate] research director Susan Levine told a reporter in 1999, “We need something besides tear gas, like calmatives, anesthetic agents, that would put people to sleep or in a good mood.”

[Academic researchers reported in 2000] that “the development and use of non-lethal calmative techniques is both achievable and desirable,” and identified a large number of promising drug candidates, including benzodiazepines like Valium, serotonin-reuptake inhibitors like Prozac, and opiate derivatives like morphine, fentanyl, and carfentanyl …

The report cited in the article is The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique, prepared by the Applied Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. Here’s one of its key conclusions.

The use of pharmacological agents to produce a calm behavioral state, particularly as relevant to management of individuals and/or groups that are agitated, aggressive and/or violent, is a topic with high relevance to achieving the mission of law enforcement and military communities. … pharmacological agents can effectively act on central nervous system tissues and produce a less anxious, less aggressive, more tranquil like behavior and, ultimately, an easier to manage individual.

So it seems that all those agitated people thinking they’re out in the street protesting injustice or demonstrating for human rights are really seeking mass treatment for their anxieties, phobias, depression and impulse control disorders. Crowd-level dosage promises fast action with no permanent damage, though the experience may be a little rough. It turns out that potentially harmful side effects may be included during “administration of the technique” (otherwise known as “gassing”). As the report says:

…perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of compounds are discarded or shelved by the pharmaceutical industry. Often an unwanted side effect, such as gastrointestinal distress, will terminate the development of a promising new pharmaceutical compound. However, in the variety of situations in which non-lethal techniques [techniques = weapons] are used, there may be less need to be concerned with unattractive side effects; indeed, perhaps a calmative may be designed that incorporates a less than desirable side-effect (e.g. headache, nausea) as part of the drug profile. Furthermore, it may be appropriate to develop a working relationship with the pharmaceutical industry to better incorporate their knowledge and expertise in developing a non-lethal calmative technique. Perhaps, the ideal calmative has already been synthesized and is awaiting renewed interest from its manufacturer.

No doubt there is a lot to be learned by emptying the trash cans of the pharmaceutical companies. It’s a bit like rescuing the ugly duckling from those raucous, unappreciative ducks and finding it a new home among swans where its beauty can be appreciated. The perfect “technique” for turning the agitated and the unruly into tranquil, manageable citizens may already be out there!

The Harper’s article also says that after this research report appeared online, the Pentagon denied that it had any plan to use these drugs as non-lethal weapons. Since 2002, information about such research has been withheld altogether or heavily censored, but the National Research Council put out a report on non-lethal weapons in 2003 that urged further research into incapacitating chemical agents, including the so-called calmatives.

The Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project, a university center in the UK, published a history of recent research in this field in 2007 which indicated that work was continuing in several countries, including the US. But…”Given the controversial nature of research in this area, especially with regard to military involvement, little information is available … .”

Let’s see if the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative will let us have a peak inside the research labs.

4 Responses to “Prozac for Crowd Control?”

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  1. Karen says:

    So, you could use addictive drugs like Xanax or morphine to not only calm a crowd, but control those people from then on. And I can imagine using an SSRI and tipping the bipolar people who happen to be there into manic phases. We add the military-pharmaceutical complex to the military-industrial complex. But I doubt that this sort of research is anything new.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen –

      You’re right – I don’t think the research is anything new. Taking technical knowledge intended to help people and using it to harm them is old news. But now neuroscience and psychopharmacology are getting more precise about how to affect specific brain functions, so it gets even more worse. Not to mention medical ethics, treaties banning chemical weapons, and a lot more.


  2. Evan says:

    I suppose it’s a bit churlish to protest against the use of less harmful agents (tear gas is no fun at all).

    I leave aside whether psychiatry is already doing this on an individual rather than crowd basis.

    • john says:

      Hi, Evan –

      The problem is that they’re not less dangerous – the dangers simply aren’t documented for most of these drugs. They often have long-lasting effects that are not well understood at all. In excessive doses they can provoke acute responses that require immediate medical assistance. The worst example is the use of a fentanyl-related drug by the Russians to fill a theater where rebels were holding hostages. 129 people died, mostly hostages who did not receive prompt treatment. Researchers are focusing on the single purpose of drugging a crowd into submission and quite consciously planning for harmful “side” effects and ignoring the primary effects of overdosing, drug interactions and the toxic effects on healthy individuals exposed to high levels of these chemicals.

      There’s a lot more to say – but I’ll save that for a political blog, if I ever get one going.


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