Nevada Is Trying a New Drug to Execute Inmates and Has No Idea How It Will Work

Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller that’s playing a huge role in the opioid crisis. 

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Scott Dozier is scheduled to be executed on July 11. In 2016, when the 47-year-old inmate first asked to skip his appeals and be put to death, Nevada didn’t have any execution drugs on hand. But last August, the state announced that it would be using a three-drug protocol that includes fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that is playing a huge role in the opioid crisis.* The problem is, medical professionals say its unclear how the drugs would react together.

Dozier, who has been on death row for more than a decade, was convicted of the 2002 murder of Jeremiah Miller. Dozier told the Marshall Project that he wanted to abandon his appeals because he’d rather die than spend more time in prison. After several months of legal challenges and hearings, his wish was granted. Now Dozier will likely become the first person in the United States to be executed with fentanyl.

When prison staffers put Dozier to death, they will first use diazepam, a sedative, and fentanyl to render him unconscious, and cisatracurium to paralyze the inmate. If the first two drugs aren’t administered properly, the paralytic will render Dozier unable to move or speak to indicate pain. 

Fentanyl was chosen because obtaining lethal injection drugs have become increasingly difficult after drug wholesalers and manufacturers began refusing to sell their products to prisons that planned to use them in lethal injections. Nevada legally obtained fentanyl from Cardinal Health, a wholesale distributor. 

The irony of using fentanyl to kill prisoners is not lost on those familiar with capital punishment. “[A]t the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids,” Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty told the Washington Post last year, “they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of drugs that will be used in the execution.