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Legal Killing

If you want to kill someone with a drug overdose, there are a variety of substances that would be useful, both legal and illegal. We have many examples of real world deaths from heroin and other illegal drugs, and on the prescription drug side, most come with information on what would constitute a lethal dose. But here in Texas we have a problem – we want to execute people legally.

Legal execution comes with a laundry list of specifications. Not just any drug that kills will do. Only particular drugs, approved by the state and survivors of court challenges will do. And, according to the Houston Chronicle, our supply of one key drug will expires at the end of September. Perhaps surprisingly, you can’t give an expired drug to a person, even if it is meant to kill them.

The drug, pentobarbital, is a fast acting sedative that has been deemed appropriate for lethal injections. However, as you can imagine, manufacturers aren’t keen on selling it for that purpose, and a supplier may be hard to come by. Importing is an option, but that requires a tall stack of paperwork and approval from customs and the FDA. Pentobarbital is, after all, a controlled pharmaceutical, just like morphine is.

This has happened before. We once used a three drug “cocktail.” But one of the three drugs was difficult to obtain. Manufacturers had stopped making sodium thiopental for sale in the US. Switching to pentobarbital seemed like a good option, because the drug is already popular for animal euthanasia. But manufacturers don’t want to sell it for use in executions. And they have the ability to block such sales, leaving Texas with a problem.

One work-around is to get a pharmacy to custom manufacture the injection instead. The active ingredient, pentobarbital, can be purchased by a pharmacy and then mixed up (using sterile technique) so that it can be injected safely. (The irony abounds.) A manufacturer would be off the hook, since they aren’t selling directly to the state for lethal injections.

For now, no one knows what will happen. Last week, we executed someone with the existing supply, but that’s it for now.


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