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    Vietnam Is Heating Up Its 'Domestic Poison' Cauldron

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Lethal doses of sodium thiopental at a US execution chamber (via)

    The syringes sit empty, ready for filling. The staff have all been trained, and are standing by. On Vietnam's death row, everything is set for carrying out hundreds of lethal injections but for one critical ingredient--poison.

    Vietnam's supply of execution-strength, three-stage drugs has run dry. Hanoi could look to Germany, a major supplier of sodium thiopental, a powerful anesthetic commonly used in lethal injections, to fill its needles. But Germany has recently heeded calls to block exports of the stuff. And seeing as enabling capital punishment is already considered unethical across the EU, the southeast Asian country, where more than 500 people currently sit on death row on drug trafficking, corruption, and rape charges, has announced that it's moving forward in producing its own execution cocktails.

    The irony is grim. For years Vietnam lost sleep over having to force innocent men into the unfortunate position of mowing down the condemned of death row, to the point that it put an end to firing squads in 2011 out of sensitivity to executioners. (Gunmen would get blitzed on cheap beer afterwards to decompress and wash away the anguish.) In a place so dismissive of the rights of those facing state-sponsored death, no matter the charges, a quick stick of a syringe seems so much less psychological taxing on poor death squads than pumping off rifles.

    It'll be interesting to see how Hanoi rolls out the program, and with what haste. Tran Dai Quang, the country's minister for public security, said that "legal amendments would be being introduced to allow for domestic poisons to be used, rather than those stipulated by law," according to the BBC. But it's still unclear just what'll constitute the new drugs. Dai Quang offered no details on the nature of them.

    Whether or not they include sodium thiopental, or some close variant thereof, is anyone's guess. Yet it's important to note the drug's less notorious uses. The quick-acting barbituate is elemental in the World Health Organization's so-called Essential Drugs List--its use has dipped somewhat in recent years, though it's still considered a "first line anesthetic" when it comes to treating a great number of geriatric, neurologic, cardiovascular, and obstetric patients, according to the American Socety of Anesthesiologists. In 2011, after the lone US manufacturer of sodium thiopental ceased production, certain states faced the prospect of standstill execution queues, to which critics of capital punishment sighed good riddance. But in a call for action on addressing dwindling supplies of critical drugs, some groups, notably the ASA, defended sodium thiopental. 

    "The ASA certainly does not condone the use of sodium thiopental for capital punishment," the group said in a statement, "but we also do not condone using the issue as the basis to place undue burdens on the distribution of this critical drug to the United States. It is an unfortunate irony that many more lives will be lost or put in jeopardy as a result of not having the drug available for its legitimate medical use."

    To think, someday the US could, in theory, look to Vietnam for its anesthetics. That'll probably never happen, of course. But still. Imagine a day when Hanoi is able to claim not just the No. 1 status in an exploding exotic-animal parts trade, but is a major player in the global sleep-juice market.

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thabanderson