US State Injecting Fentanyl into Capital Punishment Tactics

© AP Photo / Rick BowmerThis Nov. 18, 2011 file photo shows the execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
This Nov. 18, 2011 file photo shows the execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary. - Sputnik International
Fentanyl is so effective at killing opioid users that one American state is planning to use the drug to carry out a death sentence.

The US state of Nevada is slated to execute a man Wednesday with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a drug at the center of the nationwide opioid epidemic. Nevada will be the first to execute a person with fentanyl as states scramble to find alternative lethal cocktails amid pushback from pharmaceutical companies reluctant to be linked to capital punishment.

Fentanyl has never been used to carry out a death penalty sentence before.

Scott Dozier, 47, received a death sentence over the killings of two people in 2001 and 2002. One of Dozier's victims was a drug partner and the other had threatened to expose his meth business.

"I'm certainly into drug use and being under the influence didn't, like, make me make way better decisions by any stretch. Because it's an illegal thing, you get into these situations where you just don't have — when you're living, you don't have any of the normal legal resources," Dozier told nonprofit criminal justice outlet The Marshall Project in a video published in early 2018. "So you have to respond disproportionately sometimes so that people don't think they can take advantage of you the next time."

Dozier was convicted of killing two people whose bodies he dismembered afterwards in an effort to dispose of them while avoiding law enforcement detection. He stressed that he never harmed any women, children or law-abiding citizens.

On Wednesday, Dozier will be executed by lethal injection, the first person to face capital punishment by the state of Nevada in more than a decade, with a cocktail that has never been used before for this purpose: a mix of the synthetic opioid fentanyl with anesthesia. Fentanyl was implicated in the overdose deaths of nearly 20,000 in 2016, according to research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Heroin dealers mix it in with the real opioid in an effort to cut costs, and heroin users seek it out because it gives them a stronger high. It's 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory discerned in 2016 that while 30 milligrams of heroin could comprise a lethal dose, a 3-milligram dose of fentanyl could end the life of an average-sized adult male.

In the past decade, at least 50 pharmaceutical companies have boycotted the practice of lethal injection in the US, to the point that obtaining the staples of the mixtures that were formerly used to kill inmates, like sodium thiopental, is impossible for US prisons.

That has reduced the number of executions states have been able to conduct, but it has also lead to an increasing number of botched executions, with frequent reports of the condemned writhing in their chairs, convulsing and living for far longer than before in total agony as they await their fate after having been injected with drugs obtained in secret that lack proven track records of peacefully killing a person.

Dozier will be injected with a mixture of fentanyl and the sedative midazolam, which "has been at the center of executions that have gone visibly wrong in every single state in which it has been used," Maya Foa, director of the anti-death penalty group Reprieve, told the Guardian on Tuesday.

Drug manufacturer Alvogen filed court papers Tuesday seeking to halt Dozier's execution, claiming that Nevada engaged in "subterfuge" in obtaining midazolam from them, and noting that it's previously caused executions to go awry.

Foa said that states usually are forced through death row inmate's appeals processes to test novel lethal injection cocktails in court before they're tested on humans. Dozier, though, is what's called a "volunteer" in the criminal justice community, having waived his rights to appeal his execution.

"My sister points out it's a lot like a terminal disease, like ‘if he had cancer and was miserable and wanted to stop treatment, I'm not going to argue with him about it,'" Dozier explained.

While it is Dozier's wish to be killed, the lengths the state of Nevada went to in order to ensure it has raised eyebrows. The state refused to say how they procured the fentanyl, but a legal battle waged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) culminated last week in the revelation that it was ordered in small quantities over the course of months.

It was purchased from a drug distribution giant called Cardinal Health, which is facing a slew of lawsuits over allegations they've been profiteering off of the opioid epidemic plaguing the US. In 2017, the "health care services company" was forced to pay fines amounting to $44 million for falling short of regulations intended to prevent opioids from falling into the hands of drug addicts. 

Meanwhile, US law allows doctors and medical institutions with DEA-issued licenses to purchase and administer scheduled drugs like fentanyl. However, ACLU Nevada legal director Amy Rose told The Guardian that an arm of the prison with said license purchased the drug only to have it transferred to the wing that conducts executions, which has no such license.

Rose said the Nevada Department of Corrections doesn't have the authority to administer fentanyl at lethal injection sites and said the ACLU is looking to whether authorities lied to obtain it. "It's concerning that Cardinal Health would sell it to the department of corrections if it knew the drugs would be used in executions," she added, noting that they continued to make sales even after Nevada's plan to use fentanyl in the case became public.

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