- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Across the world, yesterday's newspapers carried front-page headlines similar to that of The Washington Times: "Russia Remains Silent on Deadly Knockout Gas." The mystery of the knockout gas's identity has been solved.

Last Wednesday, some 50 Muslim terrorists from the Russian province of Chechnya stormed a theater in Moscow and took as hostages about 800 people (mostly Russians) who were watching a play. The terrorists demanded that Russian troops depart Chechnya, or else they would murder the hostages in cold blood. His patience running out and afraid the terrorists would carry out their threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a commando assault on the theater, led by crack Speznaz special operations teams.

Prior to the assault, the commandos pumped in an incapacitating gas into the theater via the ventilation system. The gas did its job. All of the terrorists were immobilized, some of them women wearing bomb belts sitting among the hostages, who had threatened to blow themselves up along with all the people around them if an attack upon them was made.

Tragically, the gas did its job far too well. Scores of hostages were found dead. Two had been killed by the terrorists, the others by the gas. Doctors in Moscow hospitals report that, in addition, more than 150 hostages remain in critical condition. The doctors and many Russian citizens are outraged that Mr. Putin refused to supply the gas's identity and its antidote.

The identity of the deadly mystery knockout gas is clear, however. It is a synthetic opiate called etorphine.

We all have seen Africa wildlife documentaries, such as on the Discovery Channel, showing researchers immobilizing and capturing big animals such as elephants, giraffes, rhinos and hippos by darting them firing a hypodermic needle into them with a dart gun. The incapacitating chemical the animals are darted with is etorphine, known to animal researchers as M99.

M99 is a synthetic opiate more than 500 times as powerful as morphine and more than 250 times as powerful as heroin. The great danger with M99 is that the lethal dose is only a few (normally three to six, depending on the animal) times higher than the effective incapacitating dose.

M99 is widely and commercially available. The Russian's "secret" is that they made an aerosol spray out of M99 (normally a powder dissolved in water), converting it into a gas. Their grave mistake was that they guessed too high on what they effective dose would be.

Too much M99 causes respiratory paralysis. The muscles of your lungs and diaphragm can't move. Death from hypoxia no air, no oxygen comes quickly. And that's what happened to the hostages: They stopped breathing.

Once this is disclosed, the anger of Russian doctors may explode because the antidote for M99 overdose is well known and available. It is a drug called naloxone, which, when injected into the blood stream, immediately blocks the opiate receptors and thus M99's effects.

African researchers using M99 always carry vials of a naloxone variant called M50-50 (diprenorphine). Removing a M99 dart from a big dangerous animal is risky. The animal may twitch violently, and the researcher may get stuck with the dart himself. They realize that in such cases they will be dead in about two minutes, unless a shot of M50-50 is immediately administered.

Perhaps Mr. Putin refuses to disclose his use of M99 gas because its antidote is so well known such that terrorists in future attacks will have naltrexone tablets (a naloxone analog) in advance or have naloxone injections at the ready. (What really is a mystery is why the Speznaz commandos weren't equipped to naloxone-inject the gassed hostages.)

In any case, he would have far better off using the U.S. Army's incapacitating agent, a fascinating substance called BZ, quinuclidinyl benzilate.

BZ works by blocking the brain and body's cholinergic receptors, so the brain can't get very much use of a natural brain chemical called acetylcholine. When that happens, a person behaves as if he or she has terminal Alzheimer's disease.

The safety factor for BZ is enormously higher than for M99: The lethal dose is 500 more than times higher than the effective dose. Further, the effects are reversible within three days if no antidote is given.

An injection of the drug tacrine (approved by the FDA for treatment of Alzheimer's) will bring the person back to normal in less than 60 seconds.

It will do no good, however, for a terrorist to anticipate this, and have injections of tacrine in his terrorist kit bag. Once hit by BZ, he will simply forget why he is a terrorist. His short-term memory evaporates.

"Why am I holding this gun?" he may ask himself. It's heavy his muscles have lost their tone, and thus their strength so he drops it. "It's hot," he tells himself. BZ prevents sweating. So he decides to take off his clothes, and that heavy, uncomfortable explosives belt, which he has forgotten what it's for.

The U.S. military has done extensive research with BZ. A group of well-trained Marines were sent out on a simulated mission at Parris Island and subsequently were exposed to BZ, for example. They proceeded to take off their clothes and sit on the beach. They wouldn't obey their commanding officer because they simply couldn't remember what his orders were. They didn't have the faintest idea of what their rifles were for, or why they should salute this stranger ("What's a salute, anyway?").

Condemned as the "Superhallucinogen," BZ has been made illegal in warfare. But terrorists are not in uniform. They are fair game for BZ. As far safer and humanitarian than M99, Mr. Putin should consider BZ the next time Muslim terrorists assault his country. For now, he needs to come clean on his mystery gas. No more secrets, Mr. Putin. We already know what the secret is.

[Note to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: Please do not destroy all stocks of BZ. We will need it here, when hostage-taking by Muslim terrorists takes place on our soil. Not if, but when.]


Jack Wheeler is president of the Freedom Research Foundation.

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