Fentanyl Drug Linked to Opioid Epidemic Sought for Execution Use in Nevada and Nebraska

An opioid at the heart of America’s drug epidemic will be used for death row executions in Nevada if the state’s Supreme Court approves the never-before-tried combination of drugs. 

Fentanyl, a highly addictive and deadly opioid, is sought for the Nevada execution of Scott Dozier alongside Valium and paralytic cisatracurium, a muscle relaxer. Nebraska wants to use the same untried trio in an upcoming execution with potassium chloride, a more common chemical in lethal injections.

The use of fentanyl would be unusual, given the drug’s troubled reputation right now, said Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College, who studies botched injections and execution methods.

“It’s ironic at best that [the states want] to use this drug to kill someone,” Sarat told Newsweek. “Throughout the United States, there is a concern about people dying on the street in the opioid epidemic, and fentanyl is involved in many of those deaths. On one hand, the government wants to prevent those deaths, but...will now appropriate this drug and use it in a lethal injection protocol.”

1117_Death_Penalty Nevada and Nebraska want to use fentanyl for a never before tested lethal injection method. Mike Simons/Getty Images

States experiment with lethal drugs because there is no set protocol for death row executions. That leaves a lot of room for error. Around 7 percent of lethal injections are botched or go wrong in some way.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is cited in at least half the 20,000 deaths of people who died of opioid overdoses in 2016. Fentanyl was originally designed as a highly regulated drug to ease extreme pain, but its illegal use is causing overdose deaths to rapidly increase across the U.S.

“On one side of their mouths, the states are saying fentanyl is an extremely dangerous drug contributing to the burgeoning public health crisis, and on the other side, they’re saying it’s a safe and effective drug to use in executions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, to Newsweek.

The American Pharmacists Association opposes pharmacists cooperation with executions because it is “fundamentally contrary” to their role as health care providers. Nevada solicited bids for execution drugs in September after running out of its execution stockpile. The state received no offers, so the director of the state Department of Corrections developed the unlikely drug combination.

Nevada County Court Judge Jennifer Togliatti paused Dozier’s execution, which was scheduled for November 14, out of concern that the suggested use of paralytic cisatracurium could mask signs of pain or hide a botched execution. When used alongside fentanyl, cisatracurium can cause hypertension and death. Nebraska is expected to request a death warrant for Jose Sandoval, but will likely face the legal challenges Nevada is seeing.

Dozier has spent more than nine years on death row for the murder of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller. Dozier has asked courts for his own death, and his lawyers say it’s important to ensure that his death will be painless. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized Nevada for the “experimental execution” with never-before-used drugs as inhumane.

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