How drug shortages will shape the death penalty debate

How Drug Shortages Will Shape the Death Penalty Debate


For decades, the typical lethal injection used a so-called cocktail of an anesthetic, a paralytic agent and potassium chloride. The method was adopted in the '80s as a less jarring alternative to the electric chair.

But supplies of the drugs have dwindled over the past few years, leading states to try different methods: from single-drug injections to different anesthetics and barbiturates.

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: Controversial death penalty cases

That shortage was driven in part by the European Union, which outlawed the export of certain drugs used in lethal injections on ethical grounds.

And also by drug companies within the U.S., some of which have refused to sell drugs for lethal injections or stopped producing them altogether.

The drugs that states have used instead have come under increased scrutiny after a handful of executions where the prisoner seemed to suffer. The issue even made it to the Supreme Court where it was ruled the drug did not violate the Constitution.

That decision centered on Oklahoma's use of the drug midazolam — the anesthetic used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.

The court ultimately decided the drug can still be used in executions because it didn't cause Lockett's apparent suffering. But four justices dissented, and some even called the constitutionality of the death penalty into question.

Justice Stephen Breyer argued executions could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, writing, "I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment."

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: Texas to execute man who fatally shot Dallas police officer

Justice Sonia Sotomayor emphasized the uncertain position drug shortages have left states in, too: "The questions before us are especially important now, given States' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution."

The alternatives to lethal injection, from firing squads to gas chambers to the electric chair, are broadly seen as more brutal, and their use could bring more constitutional scrutiny from the court.

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: Looking at the pros and cons in the death penalty debate

The shortage of drugs is also mirrored by shrinking public support. A majority of Americans still approve of the death penalty, but that support has steadily decreased over the past two decades: down to 56 percent in favor in 2015, from 78 percent in 1996, according to Pew Research Center polls.

Click through to see more on different execution methods:

4 PHOTOS
Death penalty, execution methods
See Gallery
How drug shortages will shape the death penalty debate
393846 06: A gurney and a electric chair sit in the death chamber of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility August 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio. The state of Ohio is one of the few states that still uses the electric chair, and it gives death row inmates a choice between death by the electric chair or by lethal injection. John W. Byrd, who will be executed on September 12, 2001, has stated that he will choose the electric chair. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)
393846 05: A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney August 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio. The state of Ohio is one of the few states that still uses the electric chair, and it gives death row inmates a choice between death by the electric chair or by lethal injection. John W. Byrd, who will be executed on September 12, 2001, has stated that he will choose the electric chair. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)
 A huge crowd of over 15, 000 people gathers around a scaffold to witness the public hanging of 22-year old Rainey Bethea August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Public outrage over the manner of execution made Bethea's death the last public hanging in the country. (Photo by Newsmakers)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

More from AOL.com:
China-Nepal border point reopens after earthquake repairs
Neighbor arrested in 1997 disappearance of Oklahoma girl, 8
Palestinian 'Day of Rage' attacks kill three: Israeli police

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.