Georgia Execution Drugs Seized by DEA

Yesterday, the DEA seized Georgia’s supply of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most states use as the first drug in a three drug cocktail to execute prisoners, explaining that there are “questions about how the drug was imported to the U.S.”

States have been importing sodium thiopental because the one US-based, FDA-approved manufacturer, Hospira, has ceased production over concerns about its use in executions.  Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, California and Tennessee have all imported this drug from non-FDA approved sources in the U.K., and Nebraska recently acquired a large quantity from a non-FDA approved source in India.

Attorneys in Georgia in particular have objected that the drug came from a “fly-by-night supplier operating from the back of a driving school in England.” Raised in advance of the execution of Emmanuel Hammond in January, these concerns, though ignored by the courts, apparently were noticed by the DEA.

Outside the U.S., Swiss-based Novartis, the company responsible for a generic, non-Hospira version of sodium thiopental recently announced its intention to prevent its drug from being used in executions.  And Denmark-based Lundbeck, maker of pentobarbital, the substitute drug currently being used by Oklahoma and Ohio, has also strongly objected to the use of their product in the killing of prisoners.

The fundamental problem is this: carrying out executions with drugs meant for healing is an unresolvable and unsustainable breach of basic medical ethics (not to mention human rights). States like Georgia sneaking around and skirting the rules to import the drugs just makes it worse.

Maryland Death Penalty Meets Globalization

As Maryland officials attempt to develop a lethal injection protocol that is acceptable to the courts, they have run into an unexpected roadblock – Globalization.   Pharmaceutical companies that produce the drugs used in executions are for the most part multi-national entities, either headquartered in Europe or with large business interests in that region. Capital punishment has been banished in Europe.  Extraditing suspects who might face the death penalty is forbidden, and exporting materials that might be used for executions has now come under intense scrutiny.

Sodium thiopental, the anesthetic Maryland (and all other executing states) had been using as the first drug in its three-drug protocol, was produced by Hospira, at a factory in Italy.  Now, because of controversy over its use in executions, Hospira will no longer make the drug at all.  A generic version of sodium thiopental is manufactured by a subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis, but that company has announced it will take all steps necessary to prevent its export to the US.  An alternative to sodium thiopental, pentobarbital, which has been used in Oklahoma and may soon be used in Ohio, is made by a company called Lundbeck, based in Denmark.  That company has already gone on record objecting to the use of their drug in executions, and it may only be a matter of time before Lundbeck takes steps to ensure that their drug doesn’t wind up in US execution chambers.

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