Speed Reads

Capital Punishment

Some states are turning to a main drug in the opioid crisis to execute prisoners

A synthetic opioid called fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine, is behind tens of thousands of the U.S. deaths last year in the opioid overdose and addiction crisis. Two states, Nevada and Nebraska, have plans to use fentanyl as the key ingredient in a lethal-injection cocktail as soon as January.

Doctors and opponents of capital punishment argue that the states are essentially performing medical experiments on death row inmates. Death penalty supporters blame the critics for the dearth of tested lethal-injection drugs, as pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell those drugs to the 31 states that have capital punishment. Either way, "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," Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College, tells The Washington Post.

Nevada would pair fentanyl with diazepam (Valium) and cisatracurium, a drug that paralyzes muscles, and Nebraska would use those three drugs plus potassium chloride to stop the heart. If the fentanyl and diazepam don't work or are administered incorrectly, "which has happened in many cases," the cisatracurium would leave the prisoner "awake and conscious, desperate to breathe and terrified but unable to move at all," said Mark Heath, an anesthesiology professor at Columbia. "It would be an agonizing way to die, but the people witnessing wouldn't know anything had gone wrong." And potassium chloride burns, he added, "so 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." The doctors who came up with the cocktails say the drugs are meant to make the execution humane.

You can read more, plus a brief rundown of America's various tried and discarded execution methods, at The Washington Post.