The State of Ohio plans to change by October the way it executes prisoners, largely because of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
Such injections were created largely to give states that impose capital punishment a humane — or at least quick and relatively painless — alternative to the electric chair, gas chamber, or firing squad. But shortages now have states scrambling to find drugs that are convenient or available, even if they are not adequately tested.
The drug shortages are largely created by the moral objections of manufacturers. But that doesn’t make them, or the problems they entail, any less real.
No state should proceed with scheduled executions until the drug, or multidrug cocktail, it plans to use has been proven to be humane and efficient. The process of changing how people are executed in Ohio should unfold with far more transparency than the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has shown so far.
Some manufacturers are refusing on moral grounds to supply corrections departments with drugs used for lethal injections. That has forced states to buy custom-made drugs from compounding, or specialty, pharmacies that are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the New York Times reported this week.
Other states are turning to untested methods such as propofol, without knowing how much pain it causes or even what dose should be administered. Expediency has trumped morality, as the process has become more haphazard — and probably more open to legal and constitutional challenges.
ODRC has not commented on what method it might select. In March, 2011, Ohio became the first state to use pentobarbital alone for a lethal injection. Its supply of the drug will run out late next month. Pentobarbital, which wasn’t created to kill people, is most commonly used to euthanize animals and treat seizures.
The drug’s maker, Denmark-based Lundbeck, opposes its use in death-penalty cases and has stopped selling the product to corrections departments. Another widely used drug, sodium thiopental, has also been kept from corrections departments after European employees objected to its use for executions.
Ohio started using capital punishment — with public hangings — when it became a state in 1803. In 1897, the electric chair replaced the gallows. In 2001, lethal injection became the sole method of execution in Ohio.
In 2009, the state switched to a single dose of sodium thiopental. In 2011, it switched again to pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, when the maker of sodium thiopental restricted its distribution.
It seems unlikely that Ohio will change to a method of execution other than lethal injection, such as electrocution or firing squads. Nor should it. Lethal injections still represent the most efficient and humane way to conduct an execution.
But drug shortages nationwide raise troubling questions about how executions are to be carried out. Missouri is thinking of returning to the gas chamber. Arkansas has stopped scheduling executions until its corrections department comes up with a new method.
In Ohio, whatever option the department selects would apply to the scheduled November execution of Ronald Phillips. ODRC must ensure that the method it selects for future executions is humane, reliable, efficient, and adequately tested.
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