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Execution: Is There a Better Way?

Recently the state of Alabama executed a man by a novel method. A mask was put over his face and nitrogen gas fed in. He died of Asphyxia: a lack of oxygen and an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood. Witnesses said that he convulsed for several minutes and gasped to breathe, leaving them to believe that the death was cruel.

The ancient Romans would sometimes execute prisoners by placing a person in a small cage and putting it under water until they drowned. Even drowning in chlorine-free saline water might be a kinder option than asphyxia.

The United States constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishments. The court-approved method of execution in several states is to use one or a mix of several pharmaceutical drugs that cause a painless death. However, even that method of execution is suspect, because the people administering the drugs sometimes cannot find a vein in which to insert a needle, leading to a botched execution. The Alabama man who was executed by nitrogen had previously been the subject of a botched execution.

Some states have suspended executions because the medications that are normally used to provide a painless execution have become unavailable. The factories that manufacture those drugs are opposed to using them for the death penalty. The governments of some other countries, being opposed to executions, have outlawed sending these drugs to the United States.

Leaving aside the morality of government execution, there is another rather obvious method of execution to consider. Fentanyl has not been used to execute anyone even though thousands of people die from overdoses of illegally manufactured versions each year.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It produces the effects of pain relief, euphoria, relaxation, sedation, drowsiness, and respiratory failure. It is FDA approved for treating severe pain and normally used for advanced cancer.

Fentanyl is applied by means of transdermal patches or lozenges. Surely it would be easy enough to give a prisoner on a gurney enough patches to kill them painlessly and without cruelty. Why, then, is no state government doing it?

Lady justice statue holding sword and scales

The answer is that every FDA approved manufacturer of fentanyl has mandated binding contracts blocking the sale of their drug for executions. Several states, including Nevada, have been sued over their attempt to use fentanyl for this purpose.

Some of the arguments against execution seem a bit over stretched and emotional, and ignore the use of transdermal patches instead of injection. However, the lawsuits have been successful at preventing the use of fentanyl.

One argument against execution says that the use of fentanyl sends the wrong message. Actually, it would seem that the use of fentanyl would send the right message – that this stuff will kill; do not use it unless you have a prescription and are under the care of a physician. However, those contemplating suicide might take it as being okay.

The use of illegal seized drugs off the streets has the problem that their strength varies wildly and they cannot be used without testing for effectiveness. Even if they are effective, they are not in a convenient form for use on the skin and some compounding pharmacy would have to be requested to process the drug into a proper format.

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