The Death Penalty Drug-Good or Bad?

Death Penalty Drug-Good or Bad?We live in times when drug makers have a lot to say about the health and happiness of the general public. We’re in the crux of a prescription painkiller epidemic, caused in part by manufacturers of these painkillers urging physicians to prescribe them as a first-course treatment for pain. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration is asking farmers to voluntarily stop using antibiotics to promote growth in animals used for food, since antibiotic-resistant infections are killing people. Now foreign pharmaceutical companies are refusing to sell anesthetic drugs that may be used for lethal injection of America’s death row inmates, citing a moral objection to capitol punishment.

That stand has done little to halt executions. Instead, great controversy has arisen out of the scramble to find replacement drugs for the deadly cocktail said to mete out death in a painless, humane way. The first publicized attention to this issue happened in Ohio earlier this year, when it took a man on death row- Dennis McGuire an agonizing 25 minutes to die from a never-before tried mix of drugs. His discomfort was made evident through several gasps during the lengthy “experiment.”

In Oklahoma, just weeks later, Michael Lee Wilson complained of a “burning” feeling after being injected with a lethal mix of “new” drugs, including pentobarbital, before he died. His death still took more than 15 minutes. Many feel these men’s constitutional rights were violated by not providing a manner of death free of pain and terror.

While I’m trying to sidestep the issue of capitol punishment in general, this debate is at the very heart of the issue. Previous drug manufacturers want no part of using their stuff to kill in such an obvious way. I say “obvious” to exclude the deaths brought on by the opiate epidemic or drug-resistant strains of infection – both more “indirect” ways of bringing about death through drugs.

Commonly, sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, was used in lethal injections until the European union barred German and Danish drug companies from selling these compounds to US prisons in December 2011. Some states had larger stockpiles than others, but by now, finding an alternative has become imperative if we choose to continue to execute criminals by lethal injection. There was one U.S. Supplier, Hospira, who stopped making the drug in early 2011.

Death by injection involves a three-drug “cocktail.“ Sodium thiopental was used first to sedate the condemned, followed by muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide to paralyze, then finally potassium chloride to stop the heart – the real killer.Finding a replacement for the sedative drug is the stickler. Sedative pentobarbital was the next commonly used drug once thiopental became scarce. It’s used for euthanizing pets, and is made here by compounding pharmacies, but the problem with it is that if it’s contaminated, it can cause extreme pain. And the problem with compounding pharmacies is that they aren’t regulated, so insuring the consistence of quality and dosage can be a problem. Add to that public opinion on an already complicated and controversial issue, and one can begin to understand why even these pharmacies don’t want to be known as contributing to the business of putting humans to death. No one wants to be known for that. And they receive threats!

Propofol would be an alternative, but there’s a shortage of the generic drug originally due to contamination problems. Add to that the small profit margin this drug carries coupled with the negative publicity and you can see why large manufacturers in our country have stopped making it. Again, compounding pharmacies can make it, but the same problems follow. Different states are experimenting with replacement sedatives, but nothing carries a guarantee that it will have the same effectiveness that the original, but now scarce sedative, sodium thiopental.So the difficulty finding the right drugs to kill with has made it a fast grab for stays of execution by the lawyers of clients scheduled for death by this procedure.
B. Lenz, Intervention Services


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