Is Fentanyl the New Execution Drug for Inmates on Death Row in Nevada?

Every year, fentanyl use causes the death of tens of thousands of Americans. This synthetic opiate is deadly in very small amounts. The loss of life triggered by the drug has shocked the country. In response, federal and state government organizations, local communities, and families are all working together to try to address the problem as quickly as possible.

Because the drug is so deadly, however, prison administrators in one prison in Nevada have determined that the drug would be effective for the purpose of executing an inmate on death row in combination with a paralytic medication commonly used for patients having surgery. Specifically, the prison has stated the intent to use an untried combination of fentanyl, Valium, and cisatracurium (a paralytic), in the death of Scott Dozier, an inmate currently on death row in Nevada.

It is a decision that is logical to some and outrageous to others. Whether or not it can or should be done has been a hot topic of debate in Nevada over the past couple months.

Is This a Logical Response?

There is no doubt that fentanyl is a deadly drug. There are countless reports of people overdosing just by coming into contact with the substance or even by coming in contact with paraphernalia that has touched the substance. It is clear that it is effective in ending life, and prison administrators may feel that given the ongoing debate over appropriate and effective methods of execution on death row, the use of fentanyl is an obvious choice.

Fentanyl may also be considered cost-effective. In a day and age when prisons are struggling to provide inmates with the basics on clothing, food, and healthcare, every dollar counts. Some feel that fentanyl, which is cheaply made and fatal in microscopic amounts, makes sense in an industry already overrun by costs. However, in light of the exponentially higher costs associated with a case where the death penalty is an option, the cost of the execution itself is too small to be of note in the discussion.

Is This an Ethical Response?

Many stand staunchly opposed to the use of fentanyl for the purposes of execution, saying it is, at best, an odd choice in the current political and social climate.

Austin Sarat is a professor at Amherst College who has studied execution methods that have been botched in the prison system. Said Sarat: “It’s ironic at best that [the states want] to use this drug to kill someone. 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.”

It is estimated that more than 7 percent of death row executions done by lethal injection are botched in some way. Because this is an untried combination of substances, many claim it is unethical to experiment on Dozier or any other inmate. Pfizer, the manufacturer of the drug, is also heavily opposed to the use of fentanyl in the execution of inmates. In fact, they demanded that the prison return the doses it purchased saying that to use it in such a way was in violation of company policy.

Additionally, the American Pharmacists Association argue against the use of medications of any kind for the purposes of taking a life, saying that it is in direct contrast to their purpose as pharmacists and the lifesaving purpose of the industry. The American Civil Liberties Union, too, has denounced the notion that it is ethical to use an untried combination of drugs for the purposes of ending a human being’s life humanely. However, they do not offer suggestions on how the situation should be handled given the high rate of past botched executions using other methods of lethal injection or gas; the only form of execution that has a 0 percent rate of botched attempts is a firing squad.

Though the prison refused to return the drug, stating that it was in no way compelled or required to do so, the Nevada County Court put the execution on hold out of concern that the use of the paralytic drug may cover up the signs of a botched attempt. It is still, at the time of this writing, undetermined how the execution will unfold. What do you think is the best approach to handling the situation? Is fentanyl an effective or ineffective option for lethal injection?