The Current

Use of fentanyl to execute U.S. death row prisoners a risk to public safety: advocate

Fearing a public backlash that could harm their sales, pharmaceutical companies have increasingly tried to block U.S. officials using their drugs for lethal injections. That has left states "scrambling" for an alternative, says one advocate.

U.S. states 'scrambling' as drug companies block use, says director of Reprieve

Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore using fentanyl last month, after a German drugmaker failed to block the execution. (Nebraska Department of Correctional Services via Associated Press)

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U.S. states are putting the general public at risk by using fentanyl in new cocktails for lethal injections, according to a human rights advocate.

Maya Foa, director of anti-death penalty organization Reprieve, said there is also an irony in using one of the drugs at the centre of the opioid crisis.

"On the one hand, they are telling the manufacturers and distributors within the pharmaceutical industry: 'You need to keep control of this, you need to track every vial, you need to make sure that people don't die of opioid overdoses,'" she said.

States then seek to "undermine" that monitoring process "by diverting them for use in executions," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It increases the risks to the public and patients when states seek drugs outside of legitimate supply chains," she said. 

Prisoners sentenced to die have never been guaranteed a painless death under U.S. law, says Joshua Marquis. 1:28

On Aug. 14, Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore, 60, using a new four-drug combination that included the opioid fentanyl. German drugmaker company Fresenius Kabi tried to block the execution, claiming that the state had illegally procured at least one of the company's drugs. A federal drug rejected their case.

Cases like this have left states "scrambling" for alternative measures, Fao said. There have been instances of states bringing executions dates forward as drugs reach their use-by dates, while Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad.

To discuss the issue, The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti was joined by:

  • Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, a group that advocates against the death penalty.
  • Joshua Marquis, district attorney of Clatsop County, Ore., who has been both prosecutor and defence on several death penalty cases.
  • Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College, Mass., and the author of the book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

Produced by Kristian Jebsen.


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