Untested Lethal Injection Drugs Amplify a Controversial Issue

Published on 2/27/14
Categorized in Addiction Stories
Untested Lethal Injection Drugs Amplify a Controversial Issue

A mass debate broke out in the United States over what new mixture of drugs is going to be used in replacement of the depleted lethal injection drug stockpiles. In 2011, The European Union banned the export of drugs that were once commonly used in the U.S for lethal injection. Patented by the E.U., the United States now struggles to concoct their own “drug cocktail.” Pressured by the extensive death row wait list, the U.S. is currently conducting human trials for their new solution to ending the life of a felon.

Capital Punishment: A Brief History into An Ugly Past

The state carries out a legal process when a person is to be punished by death for their treacherous crime/s. If a person is charged with a capital crime or capital offense, they can be subject to capital punishment- the death penalty. Nearly all societies have used capital punishment, at one point in their past, as a means to execute criminals and political or religious “separatists.” Since the beginning of recorded history, the death penalty was accompanied by torture, and most of the executions were public beheadings for crimes such as: murder, treason, rape, espionage, incest, sodomy and adultery. With such an extensive list, a person on death row could wait years before their public execution.

In the 21st century, the process has changed completely. Most of the world has conformed to “more humane” ways of execution or has banned it completely. In the United States, lethal injection is commonly used as a practice of injecting the guilty murderer with a mixture of drugs, resulting in death. For years the combination or the “drug cocktail” typically consisted of a barbiturate, paralytic, and potassium solution. The combination of drugs kills the convicted person by putting them to sleep first, stopping the breathing, then terminating the heart.

Ohio’s Solution to this Increasing Epidemic

Lethal Injection DrugsAll over the U.S., states hasten to manufacture a new combination of drugs after the E.U.’s patented mixture expired. With drained reserves, U.S. biochemists scrambled to create a new “drug cocktail” as the number of people on death row expanded. Rick Lyman- reporter for the New York Times- writes, “European manufacturers of such previously used drugs as pentobarbital and sodium thiopental stopped selling them for use in executions.” Without a country-wide, general consensus for a replacement drug, the state of Ohio took charge in deciding the new chemical combination that was going to be used to end a human life.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction selected a new combination of drugs immediately “after the state’s supply of pentobarbital expired in 2009” (JoEllen Smith, Ohio Department’s spokeswoman). Approved by the federal court, the new drug cocktail consists of midazolam (a sedative) and hydromorphone (a strong analgesic derived from morphine). Midazolam depresses the respiratory system and is commonly used for sedation of medical and dental patients, and now death row criminals. The biggest issue with using midazolam is that the dosage varies depending on the weight and height of the person that the drug is being administered to. Warning labels on the bottle insist that a “normal healthy adult” should not exceed 2.5 mg. The sedative is usually administered in lower does because rapid injection can cause severe seizures and hypotension. Large doses of hydromorphone cause: shallow breathing, slowed heart rate, seizures, fainting and so on. Rxlist.com states, “The dosage of opioid analgesics like hydromorphone hydrochloride should be individualized for any given patient, since adverse events can occur at doses that may not provide complete freedom from pain.”

The Controversial First Human Trial

On January 16th, Dennis McGuire- charged with a capital crime for the 1989 raping and strangling of a young woman- was the first to unwillingly partake in human testing trials. At the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, McGuire was administered the new drug cocktail, taking 15 minutes to die from lethal injection.

The eyewitness accounts differ, making it difficult to separate exaggerated rumors from facts. Some speculators insist that McGuire struggled and gasped for air in his final moments. A reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, who was present at the execution, swears that she heard loud gasping, snorting and choking noises for almost 10 minutes before McGuire went silent and was declared dead. Other witnesses contest that he did not struggle, but the noises heard were from his loud snores.

Lethal Injection DrugsNo matter what witnesses believe, the execution took an unusually long amount of time. Deborah Denno, an expert in lethal injection cases stated, “Usually, lethal injection takes about four or five minutes, if done properly.” The untested combination of drugs used in the procedure also stirred the debate over the new lethal injection cocktail. There’s a chance that McGuire’s death was painful and prolonged, which violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Future of Lethal Injections

Since the drug shortage of the E.U.’s three-drug cocktail, states have begun testing new combinations to ensure that inmates die in the most humane way possible. New methods have arisen, consisting of: a one drug dosage (a single-drug method of an anesthetic), pentobarbital, propofol and midazolam (the first drug in a three-drug method). Already, six states have agreed to using compounding pharmacies as a means to obtaining lethal injection concoctions. A compounding pharmacy combines, mixes and alters drugs, acting as drug manufacturers to produce specific drug combinations.

At this rate, every state in the United States will have some form of their own lethal injection in which they can legally use on humans, even with little testing prior to public use. Hopefully an efficient and painless combination of drugs will be created by a compounding pharmacy to end these horrific means of death for the inmates on death row.

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