Florida First to Use Controversial New Execution Drug

With supplies of pentobarbital dwindling, Florida and Texas try out new untested lethal injection drugs, like midazolam hydrochloride.

The controversial drug midazolam hydrochloride was used earlier this monthduring a Florida execution, marking the first time that the state nixed the use of pentobarbital, the default drug for executions that 16 states have been using for the last four years. Texas has joined Florida as the only two states that no longer use pentobarbital. Earlier this month, Texas executed an inmate using a compound version of pentobarbital that is not subject to federal oversight. 

Last Tuesday, William Happ, convicted of rape and murder, become the first to be put to death using midazolam hydrochloride, a sedative that has never been tested in the context of lethal executions, but is said to induce unconsciousness, paralysis and death by cardiac arrest. 

The switch has largely been prompted by the country's diminishing supply of pentobarbital, in use since 2010. Recently, medical organizations have agreed to prohibit the sale of the drug to state prisons. Midazolam hydrochloride, it seems, has stepped in as the alternative. But the absence of oversight, and use of drugs that are relatively untested is worrisome to human rights advocates and others concerned about cruel and unusual punishment.

“It’s a desperate act on the part of states,” Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor told Al Jazeera. “It’s a dangerous act because it’s extremely risky. These states just can’t go jumping from drug to drug to drug.”

This isn't the first time execution drugs have drawn controversy: In 2011, 15 states made the switch to a drug named Nembutal, but doctors and human rights organizations pressured companies to end their supply in the United States, restricting its purchase by prisons. By the end of that year, Ovation, the company which made the drug, sold its rights to AKORN as part of a deal that prohibited the Illinois-based company from selling the drug to prisons. 

As the pentobarbital supply continues to dwindle, drugs like midazolam hydrochloride are stepping in as controversial replacements, and most prisons aren't waiting for approval by medical boards before using them. Earlier this month, three Texas death-row inmates filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's use of the drug, citing that it would violate constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.

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