Oregon's Governor Puts Lethal-Injection Drugs Back on the Market

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John Kitzhaber has announced an end to death sentences during his term, but he doesn't have a problem with other states ending lives.

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Finding itself in possession of $18,000 worth of recently acquired lethal injection medications it can no longer use, Oregon's Department of Corrections is hoping to recoup its costs by returning the drugs to a distributor. This week,The Oregonian reported that the wholesaler has picked up the drugs and the state is now awaiting payment. But none of the three other Americans states that have recently halted executions made similar moves -- all for unique reasons.

Oregon's supplier will have no trouble unloading the state's unused death drugs now that Europe is actively blocking their importation into the United States. They're a hot commodity in the remaining death penalty states, but that doesn't mean they should go to market. Delivering Oregon's drugs right back into another death chamber is remarkably callous, especially given Governor John Kitzhaber's dramatic November 2011 speech explaining why he would no longer participate in the "unfair" death penalty system. He even reiterated his own personal longstanding disagreement with state-sanctioned killing.

Despite his personal beliefs, Kitzhaber didn't commute all the death sentences in his state, instead announcing he would hold off enacting any scheduled executions during his term. The next Oregon governor may very well carry on with the unjust killing of every sentenced soul now on death row -- just not on Kitzhaber's watch.

Having seen his moral calculus in action, I could argue that Kitzhaber hopes to hedge his position with both sides of this issue: going all the way must be too politically risky. But if anyone questions whether his anti-death penalty move represents a gut-wrenching triumph of moral courage over the ill-considered will of his state's pitchfork-ready masses (who confirmed last their taste for blood in 1984), then his administration's efforts to recoup $18,000 should settle the matter. The amount is a token of the $1.3 million the state wasted in preparing for its most recent, canceled execution. Kitzhaber's call makes him the one responsible for all that wasted taxpayer money. Is that why he cares about $18,000?

Through this series of opinion pieces, I've been making my best effort to push Kitzhaber to make the right decision here and ditch his drugs. His spokesperson last told me he's standing his ground: If the distributor will refund the money, Oregon reserves the right to send back the drugs. Now, we hear the deed is done. Words like hypocrite don't sting these days, even when backed up by the facts.

So I decided to reach out to each of the three states that recently quit the death penalty to find out what each decided to do with its leftover supplies. In November, Kitzhaber cited each of these three states -- New Mexico, New Jersey and Illinois -- as shining examples of what his own state should do. If Kitzhaber respects their progressive human rights policies, maybe he'll also be interested to learn how they handled their own drug disposal dilemmas.

Only Illinois faced quite the same decision as Oregon, I found. New Mexico, which repealed its death penalty law in 2009, didn't have its own supply of lethal injection drugs by the last time it had to carry out a death sentence (in 2001) and actually contracted with Texas to do so, the state's Corrections Department said. New Jersey repealed its death penalty in 2007, and by that point had not carried out a capital punishment since 1963. It had no medications in its inventory, and none of the death chamber equipment was in a salvageable state by 2007, said Dr. Ralph Woodward, managing physician at the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Illinois finally abolished the death penalty this year, and faced the decision of what to do with its lethal injection medications after its governor placed a moratorium on executions in 1999. The state opted to destroy its remaining drugs, said Luke Hartigan, chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Corrections.

It's astounding that a simple self-appraisal -- or friendly email by a political minder -- hasn't yet prompted the governor of Oregon to halt his Corrections department from facilitating executions elsewhere. All Governor Kitzhaber has to do is pick up the phone and have the wholesaler destroy the drugs, and cancel the check. Will the fact that selling off the drugs wasn't even an option in Illinois, a state that knows when it has a "valuable thing," finally say something to John Kitzhaber? That would be golden.

Image: Reuters.

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Ford Vox, MD, is a physician, based in Atlanta, who specializes in caring for people with complex brain injuries. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.

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