As countless people across the country are dying from bad batches of heroin cut with the controversial opiate fentanyl, prisons are starting to consider it as a method of lethal injection. This week, the Washington Post reported that Nevada and Nebraska have become the first states to start using the opioid for executions. As the death penalty has become increasingly unpopular in the developed world, drug makers have been refusing to sell poisons to prisons to comply with popular opinion.

Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation blamed opponents of the death penalty for preventing the other drugs from getting to the prisons.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply. [They] 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,” Scheidegger said.

Fentanyl is much easier to obtain than the traditional drugs used in lethal injections, as it is widely prescribed at low doses for anesthesia and pain in many hospitals. The obvious connection of the drug to the nations overdose problem has definitely caused a few people to stop and think about whether or not this should be used on inmates.

Law professor Austin Sarat pointed out that, “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.”

There are reportedly a list of other drugs that will be used as backups if the fentanyl fails to do its job, but experts in the field have warned against this practice. Mark Heath, a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University told the Post that this could potentially be a very scary and painful way to die.

“If the first two drugs don’t work as planned, or if they are administered incorrectly, which has already happened in so many cases . . . you would be awake and conscious, desperate to breathe and terrified but unable to move at all. It would be an agonizing way to die, but the people witnessing wouldn’t know anything had gone wrong because you wouldn’t be able to move,” Heath said.

“If you weren’t properly sedated, a highly concentrated dose would feel like someone was taking a blowtorch to your arm and burning you alive,” he added.

Joel Zivot, another professor of anesthesiology also criticized the plan, saying that, “There’s no medical or scientific basis for any of it. It’s just a series of attempts: obtain certain drugs, try them out on prisoners, and see if and how they die.”

Fentanyl is approximately 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and roughly 40 to 50 times more potent than pharmaceutical grade (100% pure) heroin. Since Fentanyl is so strong, it can be mixed with heroin and other adulterants to trick people into thinking that they are getting more heroin than they actually are. However, the risk of death and overdose greatly increase because Fentanyl is very disruptive to the respiratory system.


Image stitch: David Becker/Las Vegas Review Journal,  Vangelis Vassalakis/Shutterstock.