The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been responsible for killing thousands of Americans in overdoses in the opioid epidemic. Two states want to use the drug to execute prisoners on death row.
Nevada and Nebraska are pushing to become the first states to have fentanyl-assisted executions, according to the Washington Post. Opponents of the death penalty say that an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions.
Proponents say that fentanyl has been tested more than standard lethal injection drugs, as thousands of people have died from overdoses on the fentanyl.
The Washington Post said states are pressed for ways to carry out death penalties because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions.
States are looking for alternatives. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method. Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair, the newspaper reported.
“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”
There have been 23 inmates executed in 2017, which is the second fewest since 1991, according to the Washington Post.
“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”
Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states don’t reveal their methods to minimize legal challenges.
The Washington Post reported that fentanyl’s advantage is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.
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