Knockout Gas Proves Deadly in Moscow

October 26th: The two-day hostage siege in a Moscow theatre, where 50 Chechen rebels held 750 people captive in a desperate act to draw public attention to the ongoing war in their province, ended in a cloud of knockout gas. The military rescue authorized by Russian President Putin began the raid by pumping an unidentified gas into the theatre ventilation system, which debilitated or rendered unconscious almost everyone exposed to it. In addition to knocking unconscious the 50 Chechen captors, who were then shot dead in their sleep by Russian storm troopers, the gas is so far responsible for the deaths of 116 hostages. Hundreds more remain in serious condition in Moscow hospitals. The Russian government refuses to release the name of the gas used and did not tell health providers of its composition or provide an antidote, even as doctors struggled to treat busloads of still-unconscious hostages being brought to the hospital following the raid. 

Some specialists speculate that the drug applied to the theatre crowd was a hallucinogenic compound, possibly BZ gas (3-quinuclidinyl benzillate), a known chemical warfare agent. International treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol forbid the use of such psycho-pharmaceutical agents. Nonetheless, the Russians, as well as the US Government, continue to study, and, apparently in the case of the Russians, use “calmatives” for military and police applications. Calmatives are neuro-chemical weapons, “compounds known to depress or inhibit the function of the central nervous system…[including] sedative-hypnotic agents, anesthetic agents, skeletal muscle relaxants, opioid analgesics, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, antidepressants and selected drugs of abuse” (“The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique”).

The question of when and where such psychochemical weapons should be applied, particularly when civilians are at risk, raises serious cognitive liberty concerns. 

Resources:

Gas May be Fentanyl

Official Silence on Gas Raises Vexing Questions (New York Times, October 27)
http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/28/international/europe/28GAS.html

CCLE Resources on Psychoactive Drugs as Weapons or Policing Tools
http://www.cognitiveliberty.org/issues/nonlethal_mind_weapons.htm

EROWID on BZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzillate) http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/bz/bz.shtml

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) on non-lethal weaponry such as calmatives: http://www.fas.org/bwc/nonlethal.htm