Execution by Morphine Overdose?

Among the objections to capital punishment in the U.S. is the contention that current and past methods (e.g., electrocution, hanging, gas chamber, lethal injection) are not humane methods of execution. In fiction, a morphine overdose is sometimes presented as a relatively painless way to ease the death of someone who is fatally wounded. Is this accurate, and if so, why isn’t morphine overdose considered as an option for the death penalty?

Note: This is not a discussion of the merits of the death penalty itself; simply a request for information on a particular means.

It may not be accurate. Google found this post that explained the issue a bit more than I understood.

Morphine is a prescription medication that needs a doctor to administer. Doctors don’t really go in for the whole killing people thing.

What do they use to put animals down?

I have seen it in action (sadly) and sure seems the animals go peacefully. I assume it would work similarly for humans.

Well, what is a lethal injection? Is it not similar in concept to how you put an animal down?

So it looks like this may be another case of something presented in fiction that doesn’t necessarily hold true. Shocking. :stuck_out_tongue:

Don’t you need some kind of license to administer the drugs currently used for lethal injections? Flipping through some Wikipedia articles, it looks like Kevorkian used to use the same chemicals, albeit in a different order, and then switched to carbon monoxide when his license was revoked and he could no longer legally obtain them.

One main issue with the lethal injection is that they currently use a barbiturate anesthetic plus a paralytic plus potassium, which stops the heart, so there is the potential for the prisoner to not be completely anesthetized before receiving a paralytic or the lethal dose of potassium. When they euthanize animals (the proper way, anyway, I’m sure there are still poor, rural shelters out there using outdated techniques), they do not use a paralytic or an overdose of potassium. It is just a significant overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic, sometimes with an anticonvulsant drug added (I’m not sure why, but my WAG would be to reduce the incidence of unsightly reactions like involuntary movement as the animal is going under). The animal is rapidly rendered unconscious and stops breathing, and the heart follows shortly thereafter. Additional doses are sometimes needed to completely kill the animal, but they are already heavily anesthetized.

I apologize if this stumbles into GD territory, but I do not understand why they feel the need to even introduce this potential stumbling block in human executions when the above technique of euthanasia has been used so widely and humanely (and relatively cheaply – an $80 bottle of Beuthanasia will kill a good-sized adult horse). Morphine overdose would follow the same idea of shutting down the brain until it stops telling the body to breathe.

Per Wikipedia, animal euthanasia usually uses a high dose of a barbituate, which is what is usually used for humans, in combination with other drugs. Current objections against the specific process of lethal injection in the U.S. hinge around the idea that the person is paralyzed but aware of their own suffocation, as well as in pain from the potassium chloride.

As others have said, the three drugs making up the current execution cocktail also require prescriptions.

Getting back to the OP, you are right - a morphine OD would do the trick. However, there are several potential problems. For one, nausea and vomiting might well result, especially from a large dose. So, too messy. Second, it may come across as being too ‘pleasant’ of a way to die in the minds of some.

The thing that gets me is the perceived need to use three drugs. All that does is complicate things unnecessarily (and give grounds for appeal on bases such as the burning pain of the potassium injection, or the potential for a smothering sensation from the pancuronium, as not being humane). An OD of the barbiturate, itself, is more than enough. In fact, IIRC, that is the preferred method (if you can get hold of it) recommended by groups such as the Hemlock Society. You just fall asleep.

So pass a law that says a signed death warrant is a prescription for an overwhelming dose of barbiturate for the condemned, dispensable by the execution team, redeemable only in the prison pharmacy. Are we really so hamstrung by some medical procedural rules that we have to torture people to death?

Executions typically have witnesses and spectators (the victims family, government officials) Perhaps the traditional method takes just enough time in between the prisoner being shuffled in and saying his last words, and the doctor announcing the time of death?

If I were present at an execturion, I wouldn’t want to sit in that box for half the night while the prisoner took his morphine, got drowsy, gently fell asleep, had to be checked up, perhaps gt another dose, and then, at some unspecified time, died. That may take hours. What should the victims family do in that time? Prod him? Go outside and smoke a cigarette? Read a magazine?

Are you looking for a factual answer or did you forget this isn’t GD?

IIRC, it’s the current method that takes a long time to kill someone (Wiki: "Death usually occurs within seven minutes, although the whole procedure can take up to two hours, as was the case with the execution of Christopher Newton on May 24, 2007. "). A sufficiently high overdose of morphine should pretty quickly depress the respiratory system, shoudln’t it?

Of course, we have the other side effects mentioned by KarlGauss. It seems like a straight-up giant dose of a barbituate would, by contrast, shut the body down quickly and (relatively?) painlessly. Hrm, although reading further, it sounds like some people can take a long time to die from just a high dose of barbituates, or may not die at all.

That is simply not true in the context of an “execution”.

Sure, if you take them by mouth, it may take a while (if for no other reason that the initial effects of the barbiturates may slow down digestion and hence their further absorption from the gut). But that is a ‘straw man’. No one would use oral barbiturates as the execution prescription. On the contrary, a huge dose given intravenously would lead to almost immediate “circulatory collapse” and suppression of breathing (hey, have you ever had a general anesthetic - and that’s with a small dose).

I’d be surprised if, following the IV administration of a BIG dose of barbiturates, the subject wasn’t dead in less than 10 minutes (and probably sooner).

As an aside, if in the ‘classic’ triple prescription used to execute someone (1st barbiturates, then pancuronium, and finally potassium), the dose of the barbiturate was increased, say, three-fold, no one could rationally argue that the subject would feel anything, let alone pain, afterward.

I had always thought that it may have something to do with the fact that morphine is a schedule II narcotic and the current drugs used are either schedule III (sodium thiopental) or uncontrolled drugs, and thus easier for non-doctors to obtain from other non-doctors for the purposes of execution (prior thread: No prescription needed to execute?). However, I’m not sure I’m right on that. The current three drug cocktail was developed by the former ME of Oklahoma in 1977 and subsequently adopted by all other states using lethal injection after it proved effective there, so its continued use may simply be a matter of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

I have a related question…

There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan where an American field medic is shot through the stomach. He realizes that he can’t be saved (or can’t realistically expect the other soldiers to save him), and requests morphine. In this type of scene, is he supposedly killed by the morphine itself or is the morphine dose administered to ease the suffering of dying from the bullet wound (or perhaps hasten the process)?

A small caliber bullet to the base of the brain is difficult to improve upon for humane-ness and effectiveness. I don’t think those two things are necessarily the prime considerations.

I don’t piddle around much in the specifcs of execution, but in general, assuming Intravenous access with a large-bore needle in a good vein, it’s easy as pie to come up with drugs and cocktails of drugs that are lethal, effective and painless.

I have the sense that establishing that IV access in the first place is often one of the sticking points, and of course there is usually a collection of individuals who have an anti-death penalty agenda hanging around to interpret any and all responses as hideous, cruel and painful.

Pure morphine is only OK. The LD50 is variable, as is the response to it, and because the mechanism of death is respiratory depression, it’s not a nice primary way to make sure an individual is dead and stays good and dead. There’s this long drawn-out period of the heart kind of sorta slowly staggering to death and staying down. Plus, without paralytics, lots of opportunity for gasping, moaning, convulsing, etc

A cocktail covering sensorium, paralysis and shutting down the heart rapidly is defintely the best choice in my non-expert opinion.


Nitrogen asphyxiation is the other old standby in discussions like this. Fast, painless, and environmentally friendly.

Morphine has two side effects that can cause death; respiratory depression and hypotension.
The dose needed to cause these side effects can be different in different individuals, depending on many factors.

Hypotension can be an ugly death ans seizures can occur. Respiratory depression can take a long time.

There are many other drugs that can cause death more quickly. Insulin in high doses is universally fatal, but it too causes seizures.