The first legal execution using fentanyl was carried out this week in Nebraska. Fentanyl is the drug currently fueling the fatal opioid epidemic in the US. As more and more Americans are finding themselves addicted to this synthetic opioid, we have seen major efforts from advocacy organizations, local and federal government, and law enforcement agencies in the fight against pharmaceutical companies, negligent doctors, and international drug cartels to get these opioids off the streets and out of our households.
Despite all the backlash, Nebraska, among other states, is seeking it out for their correctional facilities in order to perform lethal injection executions. This week’s death sentence fulfilled at the Nebraska state penitentiary was historic not just for its use of fentanyl but also because it was the state’s first lethal injection sentence ever and first execution in 21 years due to flip-flopping legislature concerning capital punishment. Many eyebrows have been raised over the correctional facility’s pleas to state courts to expedite the process because of expiring chemicals, the decision to include fentanyl in the seemingly experimental injection, and the legal pushback received from drug manufacturers.
Why use fentanyl for lethal injection execution?
Nebraska and Nevada have both recently put pressure on judges by asking to use fentanyl for lethal injection even though it has never been used in this manner before. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center nonprofit organization, commented about this, “No one has used it before, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of executions by injection.”
Nebraska’s historical injected cocktail was a mixture of potassium chloride to stop the heart, cisatracurium besylate to paralyze the muscles, diazepam to sedate, and fentanyl to cause unconsciousness. Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Scott Frakes, feverishly contacted other states and over 40 drug suppliers to get his hands on the substances needed for this experimental, four-drug injection. In an affidavit submitted to federal courts, Frakes states, “Lethal substances used in a lethal injection execution are difficult, if nearly impossible, to obtain.”
So if fentanyl is not the usual route taken, then why, especially amidst the opioid crisis, would these prisons ask to incorporate it? Dunham simply asserts, “The state is using fentanyl because it can get its hands on it.”
What are the implications of this institutional use of fentanyl?
With all the work and federal money being pumped in to the regulation and prevention of manufacturing, distribution, importation, and ultimately abuse of fentanyl, it would seem that the decision for a sector of the government to implement fentanyl in its dealings is quite unbecoming. The implicit reason for correctional facilities wanting to use fentanyl sheds light on a terrifying, albeit real, mindset of the prison system: if the general American public can so easily get their hands on fentanyl, why shouldn’t American institutions be able to do the same?
The utilization of this opioid for the sole purpose of killing serves as an admission of just how deadly it truly is. Multiple pharmaceutical companies have filed law suits against correctional facilities that want to use their products for lethal injection. Dunham explained this poignantly, “The company’s goal is to not have their medicine used to kill prisoners,” and to avoid, “having [their] medicines associated with death instead of life.” These companies have fought expensive legal battles in the past two decades to keep their products on the shelves of pharmacies and scribbled on prescription pads across the US and are attempting to deflect further negative attention around their, oftentimes, fatal medications.