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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 27th November 2011

My book, ‘Is That Cat Dead?’, is based on looking at the questions many people have about poisonous plants. If you will, these are the FAQs of poisoning. There are, though, a number of OAQs (Occasionally Asked Questions) and one of those came to mind after reading a story from a magazine called ‘Outlook India’.

This particular OAQ was based on a belief that nicotine is used as the poison in executions by lethal injection in the USA. I haven’t been able to trace how that came about but, I suppose, it could be that someone said that nicotine, from the Nicotiana genus, tobacco, is a more potent killer than the chemicals used in lethal injections and that went from the suggestion that nicotine could be used to the idea that it is used.

Nicotiana genus, tobacco

Nicotiana genus, tobacco

Nicotine is a very toxic substance and there have been deaths as a result of nicotine poisoning but smoking does not deliver a lethal amount. It is the other chemicals in tobacco that do the damage that shortens five million lives a year.

The story that set me thinking about this was about the difficulty American states that use capital punishment by lethal injection have in obtaining the chemicals used and the subterfuge they are willing to be complicit in so as to able to continue their barbaric punishments.

Talking about execution by lethal injection is something of a misnomer. It is really death by lethal infusion. That is to say, a catheter is inserted into the prisoner’s arm (often both arms so that there are two lots of chemicals being administered) which is kept clear by using a saline drip. At the time of the execution, an anaesthetic is infused first intended to produce a very deep sleep. This is followed by a muscle relaxant intended to stop the function of the chest muscles and, thus, bring breathing and heartbeat to an end. In some places, that is the end of the process but in others a cardiac poison is then given to be doubly sure that the heart is stopped.

The anaesthetic used is sodium thiopental. I should add that some states changed the drugs used to a massive dose of the drug given to pets to ‘put them to sleep’ but I’m concerned, here, with those who have continued to use the ‘traditional’ method.

Sodium thiopental used to be widely used in hospitals around the world and was manufactured on quite a large scale. As better anaesthetics came along, its use declined, except in some third world countries. In 2009, the only US manufacturer of sodium thiopental ceased production and prisons began buying from Europe.

Protests soon led to bans by European states plus companies ceasing to be willing to supply the USA. The small volumes involved simply made it not worth the bad publicity to the manufacturers. But, as we know all too well with illicit drugs, if there is a demand for a product someone will find a way to satisfy the demand.

According to ‘Outlook India’ companies in India have taken over the supply but not in an open way. The article gives an example of a small company that managed to convince an Indian manufacturer to provide free samples for testing in Zambia in advance of approving the supplier as a new source for Zambia’s health service. In fact, the free samples were sold to Nebraska.

The manufacturer was outraged when it was named as the supplier by the Nebraska authorities but not surprised since it works with an anti-death penalty charity to try and stop its products being diverted in this and similar ways.

It is some time since doctors in the USA were willing to be involved in executions meaning that prison staff, with limited medical training, now insert the catheters, which can be a difficult and painful process. Now, it seems that access to the chemicals used is becoming harder and harder.

The problem is that the determination of the American authorities to persist with judicial murder means they will either be prepared to purchase from ever more dubious sources or may switch to a different set of substances that cause greater suffering prior to death.

Persisting with capital punishment in spite of these difficulties really does have much in common with illicit drug users.

Who knows, one day they might turn to nicotine and make the erroneous belief fact.

What with the racially biased incarceration of people for possession of drugs, the millions of dollars being spent to protect against the non-existent threat of ricin, the complicity in thousands of deaths in Colombia and, now, Mexico and the continued use of a means of punishment that is both barbaric and evidentially ineffective, the only thing I’m giving thanks for this weekend is not being born an American.  


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