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How Drug Manufacturers Are Impacting The Death Penalty Debate

This latest drug shortage may not mean that manufacturers have the final say in the matter, but their actions are clearly helping to steer the conversation.

Polls generally show that the majority of Americans are on board with the death penalty. In October 2014, Gallup reported that 63 percent of Americans were in favor of capital punishment while 33 percent were opposed.

But when it comes to carrying out executions in recent years, the vote of one group of individuals — drug manufacturers — has begun to hold more sway.

Public pressure on drug manufacturers to stop selling the chemicals coupled with some companies’ opposition to the practice has cut off supplies, leading to shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections. Now, several states scrambling to figure out if and how they’ll be able to be able to go ahead with scheduled executions.

Why Manufacturers Matter

Lethal injection became the standard of executions about 33 years ago, after it was widely accepted as more humane than firing squad, the electric chair or hanging.

Most states use a deadly combo of three drugs — one sedative, one muscle relaxer and one heart-stopping drug. But other states have used a one-drug method of a barbiturate that’s administered as an overdose.

But scrutiny of lethal injections started gaining steam in 2005, when a study reported that it was possible inmates were experiencing extreme pain during executions. Then in 2006, one inmate in Florida took 35 minutes to die after being given his lethal dose, raising new questions about the cruelty of the practice. Since then, several other botched executions have dispelled the idea that injections were full-proof and peaceful.

Then in about 2011, the bans started. First the EU clamped down on exports of drugs used for capital punishment. The same year, Hospira, the only U.S. company that sold a sedative used in lethal injections, sodium thiopental, announced it would stop selling the drug after its Italian plant refused to manufacture it.

Afterwards, states began switching to another sedative — pentobarbital. But then its Danish manufacturer, Lundbeck, discovered it was being used in lethal injections and banned its sale to U.S. correctional facilities. States then turned to a different sedative — midazolam — and again, its manufacturer in Illinois, Akorn, announced a few weeks ago it would stop selling the drug to correctional facilities.

With big pharma putting the squeeze on states to reconsider their options, many have turned to smaller drug compounding companies — but now in some cases, they’re becoming an unreliable source. Pentobarbital is the key drug Texas has run out of, either because compounding pharmacies won’t sell it or because they’re struggling to get the raw ingredients needed.

The smaller compounding pharmacies are also operating with the threat of being outed as a lethal drug injection maker could expose them to public condemnation — making one wonder how much longer they’ll choose to stay in the market.

So, now what?

Will The Future Lead to The Past?

In a twist that has got to have abolitionists wincing, instead of states choosing to consider ending executions in light of drug shortages, many might revert to old methods.

A few weeks ago, Alabama’s House of Representatives voted to use the electric chair if they can’t secure a supply of new drugs. Virginia and Tennessee are also considering electrocution, while Oklahoma is discussing the gas chamber.

Texas was recently down to its last dose of the lethal cocktail, leaving hundreds of death-row inmates waiting to find out what the future holds.

Meanwhile, a lack of drugs in Utah has prompted legislators to approve bringing back execution by firing squad.

It’s likely an unintended consequence of cutting off the drug supply — but the situation has set off a fresh wave of debates that’s likely to force many Americans to once again assess their comfort level with the sometimes gruesome realities of executions.

After the fire squad bill was introduced in Utah a few weeks ago, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, received hundreds of messages urging him to veto it. (Today he announced that he'd sign the bill into law anyway.)

The move shows that for now, when it comes to executions, many states may just change course, rather than abandon it. But with more than 3,000 prisoners on death row, how long will Americans be able to stomach hearing about inmates dying from firing squads and electric chairs?

And even though the death penalty isn't going anywhere yet, many believe that being cut off by drug manufacturers has contributed to a slowdown in executions nationwide.

In almost every year since 2009 — which is about when drug shortages started to become a problem in many states — the number of executions in the U.S. has dropped. In 2009, America executed 52 prisoners, and by 2014, the number was down to 35. Which begs the questions: Will the pressure from manufacturers spawn a new moment of reckoning for Americans? At some point, will the slowdown related to drug manufacturers help bring executions to an end?

As the story unfolds in the coming weeks, drug manufacturers will continue to play their role in how the 32 states that allow the death penalty choose to proceed. While this latest shortage may not mean that manufacturers have the final say in the matter, their actions are clearly helping to steer the conversation.

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