The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been killing tens of thousands of Americans in overdoses. Two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties to execute prisoners on death row, the Washington Post reports. As Nevada and Nebraska push for the first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They warn that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs for lethal injection to human experimentation. States are pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining drugs because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions.
The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to use novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas as a backup, something no state or country has tried. Other states have authorized a return to older methods, such as firing squads and electric chairs. “We’re in a new era,” said Fordham law Prof. Deborah Denno. “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.” States put 23 inmates to death in 2017, the second-lowest total in a quarter-century. Nineteen states have no capital punishment. Fentanyl 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 of Amherst College, who studies the death penalty.