When chemist Armin Walser helped invent a sedative more powerful than Valium more than 40 years ago, he thought his team’s concoction was meant to make people’s lives easier, not their deaths. Decades after the drug, known as midazolam, entered the market, a product more often used during colonoscopies and cardiac catheterizations has become central to executions and the debate that surrounds capital punishment, the New York Times reports. “I didn’t make it for the purpose,” said Dr. Walser, whose drug has been used for sedation during 20 lethal injections nationwide. “I am not a friend of the death penalty or execution.” Midazolam’s path from Dr. Walser’s laboratory into at least six execution chambers has been filled with secrecy, political pressure, scientific disputes and court challenges.
The most recent controversy is the plan in Arkansas to execute eight inmates in 10 days next month. The state’s midazolam supply will expire at the end of April, and given the resistance of manufacturers to having the drug used in executions, Arkansas would likely face major hurdles if it tried to restock. Supporters of midazolam’s use, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in an Oklahoma case, say it is a safe and effective substitute for execution drugs that have become difficult to purchase. Death penalty critics, citing executions that they say were botched, argue that midazolam puts prisoners at risk of an unconstitutionally painful punishment because the condemned may be insufficiently numbed to the agony caused by the execution drugs. A major legal test is in Ohio, where a federal appeals court heard arguments last week about the drug’s future there.