The Terrifying Shortage Nobody Is Talking About
We've been ignoring scientists' warnings for decades, and now their dire predictions are coming true: America is running out of poison. This is a crisis more urgent than California's water shortage. "But what about water?" you might be asking. "People need it to live!" Well, people need poison to die. And we've been ignoring the poison drought for too long. We didn't listen when Oklahoma had to delay executions because it ran out of sodium thiopental. We didn't listen when the amount of pentobarbital in Texas dropped to levels so low that they could only execute seven people last year. Seven. In all of Texas. Does that seem normal to you?
Now, Arkansas is scrambling to perform as many executions as they can before the last of their midazolam expires at the end of the month. In some communities, they may have to choose between poisoning a murderer with an IQ in the range of mental disability and poisoning a murderer with severe mental illness. We can turn a blind eye no longer.
The ready availability of poison is something we take for granted here in the U.S., but in less fortunate places like the EU, there hasn't been a single execution since 1997. Think about that for a minute. That means that if you were convicted of murder there, you wouldn't get a dose of cool, beautiful pentobarbital -- a luxury to which we've grown accustomed. You'd have to live out the remainder of your years in deplorable, disgusting conditions, learning a skill to contribute to society. I know it's uncomfortable to imagine, but the U.S. running out of poison might not just be something our grandchildren must cope with. It could be sooner than we think.
Soon finding a lethal needle will be like will be like finding ... some ... thing ... in a haystack.
To refute the poison deniers, you need only look at the facts. In 2010, Hospira -- the only source in the U.S. of vital poisons like thiopental -- ran dry. They stopped producing the poison because the economic and social climate surrounding the death penalty had changed so drastically that their plants could no longer function. Since then, poison-poor states like Ohio and Arizona have had to get creative to stretch the use of every toxin they have. Things have gotten so bad that they've had to resort to using a non-approved poison called midazolam, which is typically used by veterinarians to put down animals. Just think about that: humans reduced to using dog poison. That's how dire the situation has become. And as you might expect, these desperate measures have resulted in botched executions, such as that of Joseph Wood, who was injected 15 times and gasped for air for two hours. Thankfully, he finally died. But doesn't it break your heart to think about having to waste 15 injections on just one execution? It's a shame we can't use heartbreak to kill inmates; metaphors aren't nearly as effective as sodium thiopental.
The shortage has also created a black market for something as simple and basic as execution-grade venom. Some states have had to pay hundreds of times the retail value of a poison. It's not surprising, then, that hard-up states have turned to a life of crime. In 2015, Arizona paid $27,000 to illegally smuggle a measly thousand vials of sodium thiopental unto the U.S., only to have it confiscated by the federal government. A heartbreaking conclusion to the story of a state just struggling to kill the 118 people on its death row. In cases like this, there simply are no good options. If they wait, those inmates might be exonerated, prove that they have mental disabilities, or simply die of natural causes. It's a choice no state should have to make. And the problem is growing.
The inmates are supposed to be the ones dying, not the program.
Indeed, all over the globe, we're seeing one of the clearest signals of an impending crisis: Pharmaceutical companies are acting against their natural instincts by willfully restricting how their products can be sold, so that the painkillers and sedatives they manufacture cannot be used as poison in executions. Watching these corporations scramble to not sell their products is surely enough to convince anyone that the natural order of things has been turned on its head. But it may not be too late.
The first thing we can do is conserve. Arkansas has the right idea in scheduling as many executions as they can before their supply expires. They're doing their part to reduce poison waste. But they could go further. Expiration dates are often conservative. That poison is probably still good for a few weeks after the "use by" date.
Kudos also go to Ohio for reducing their poison use. They under-dosed an inmate so that he took 25 minutes to die. It isn't as pretty or humane as a normal execution, but the poison they didn't use can be repurposed to course through the veins of someone else until their heart stops.
Every drop counts.
But with the population growing, conservation may not be enough to meet the increasing needs of under-poisoned communities. Arizona is attempting a creative solution using crowdsourcing. They're asking inmates to provide their own toxins for lethal injections -- a smart and creative way to involve the community in conservation efforts. Unfortunately, obtaining the precious resource isn't any easier for people locked in a prison than for put-upon states. That's why we need innovation in poison recycling. For example, it may be possible to recycle the poison used to kill one person by distilling their blood into another, perfectly serviceable poison. Using fresh poison for each execution may be a luxury we soon learn to live without.
Finally, we need to seek out new, sustainable poisons so we aren't reliant on foreign poisons. This is the only way we can guarantee our country's poison security, which is something we need to start thinking about. Unless mankind's course changes, we are headed for brutal wars over our poison supply. It may not be like the movies -- people wearing tire armor in a verdant, poison-free, flower-filled hellscape -- but it is coming.
If current estimates are correct, by 2024 we could be out of poison altogether. If we don't act now, we could have a future without lethal injections. Is that how we want to be remembered by future generations? I, for one, want to leave poison for my children, and for their children's children. Let's work today to leave a more poison-filled tomorrow.
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