FDA Slammed For Allowing Illegal Execution Drugs

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

I’ve written before about how the death penalty degrades everything it touches, and in the words of Thomas Paine,  leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.  Doctors and other medical professionals complicit in the act of execution violate the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” Drug companies are unwillingly dragged into the business of killing, rather than healing. And now, a recent court ruling exposes how the the FDA, whose stated mission is to keep us safe from bad food and drugs, has abandoned its mandate in order to facilitate state executions.


The Shady World Of Execution Drug Trafficking

Once upon a time, Chris Harris was a broker for Kayem Pharma, a small India-based pharmaceutical company that sold sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that, in addition to its legitimate health care uses, has been used to kill over 1,000 prisoners in the U.S.  Late last year, he brokered a sale of sodium thiopental to the states of Nebraska and South Dakota, states that have collectively carried out exactly one execution this century.  Nebraska paid just over $2,000 for enough of the drug (500 grams) for 166 executions (there are 12 people on Nebraska’s death row), while pledging it would not be reselling the drug to other states.

Why so much?  That is not clear, but eventually the DEA ruled that it had all been imported illegally anyway and could not be used.  Kayem, meanwhile, expressed dismay that their drug would be used for executions, saying that it violated their “ethos of Hinduism”.   Angry emails between company headquarters and its U.S. agents, with epithets like “drug peddlers” and “piece of sh*t thief”, flew back and forth.  Chris Harris was fired for “indulging in activities detrimental to Company interest.”


Ohio Should Just Stop Killing People

Back in 2010, the pharmaceutical giant Hospira Inc. asked Ohio to not use its drug, the anesthetic sodium thiopental, in executions.  Ohio, like other states, refused, so Hospira stopped making the drug.

Then Ohio, like other states, switched to a new anesthetic called pentobarbital.  Its manufacturer, Lundbeck, also asked Ohio to not use it in executions.   Again, Ohio, like other states, refused.   Lundbeck is now actively taking steps to prevent future batches of this drug from getting into the hands of executioners.  So, with 12 executions scheduled between now and May 2013, Ohio is facing yet another execution drug shortage.

What now?  Ohio is considering switching drugs again.  Its choices include a drug that helped kill Michael Jackson (propofol), or a combination of drugs that could cause convulsions or vomiting (midazolam and hydromorphone).  (No word on whether Ohio might consider even cheaper alternatives.)


Georgia's Shady Death Penalty Drug Deals

As George Costanza once said: “This thing is like an onion:  the more layers you peel, the more it stinks!

On June 23, Georgia intends execute Roy Blankenship.  For the first time they plan to use Nembutol, the anesthetic they acquired to replace sodium thiopental in their lethal injection protocols (their supply of sodium thiopental was seized by the DEA).

Lundbeck, the Nembutol’s Danish manufacturer has written a second letter demanding that their drug not be used in state killing, now pointing out that the they “cannot assure the associated safety” of the drug.

You can read both letters here.


EU Should Ban Trade Of Death Penalty Drugs To US

Lethal injectionLast October, Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan using sodium thiopental imported from England.  Other states also acquired this drug from the UK – but many of them (but not Arizona) have since had their supply confiscated by the DEA.

One of those states is Georgia which, in seeking to execute Troy Davis, is now scrambling to find an alternative drug.  Last Friday it appeared that they were close to a decision to replace sodium thiopental with pentobarbital.  This latter is rapidly becoming the drug of choice for our nation’s executioners, as Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have all switched to it.

The company that makes the drug these four states are using, Lundbeck, is also based in Europe (Denmark), although the drug itself may be manufactured in the US.  The EU is supposed to have a ban on the trade in “tools of torture”, but a loophole allowed these exports of lethal injection drugs from the UK last fall, and this loophole clearly needs to be closed.  That is why Amnesty International is promoting a petition to José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to ban the use of EU sourced drugs for US executions.

While these drugs should be banished from US execution chambers, Amnesty is not calling for an end to the manufacture or exporting of drugs which have legitimate and important medical uses; simply for the EU to insist that these drugs don’t end up being used for the opposite of their intended purpose – for killing instead of healing.

Denmark Company Supplies Major U.S. Executioners

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” – Hamlet

The European nation of Denmark is about to embark on executions in a big way.  Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck has sold pentobarbital to four of the most prolific executing states in the U.S.: Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.  These states already have, and will continue to use Lundbeck’s product for executions.  Pentobarbital is emerging as the replacement for sodium thiopental, which was once the drug used in all lethal injections in the U.S., but now has become increasingly hard to get.

Campaigners in Europe have attempted to convince Lundbeck to prevent the drug from winding up in U.S. execution facilities.  Lundbeck has objected, verbally, to the use of its product in executions, telling the New York TimesThis is fully against what we stand for.  We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” But so far Lundbeck has not taken any effective action.

Campaigns to limit exports of sodium thiopental, the drug pentobarbital is replacing, have been successful, albeit after several states already acquired a supply (one state, Georgia, has had its supply confiscated by the DEA).   The UK has banned the drug’s export to the U.S. for executions, and an Italian factory ceased production of the drug entirely.  Governments in Austria and Germany have preemptively warned pharmaceutical companies in their respective countries not to allow sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S. for executions.

It remains to be seen if Denmark and Lundbeck will ultimately restrict the export of pentobarbital.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic  used in surgical procedures.  Pentobarbital is used for controlling epilepsy.  Life-saving, life-improving drugs, in both cases.  Restricting their availability will do harm to the quality of legitimate health care in the U.S.

I’ve written before about the degrading nature of the death penalty; about how deliberately killing human beings violates our most basic values and thus degrades and damages everyone involved.  That ordinary Americans in need of medical care might suffer because some states insist on killing prisoners is yet more evidence of that.

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.

Ohio at Death Penalty Crossroads

(c) Scott Langley

As the pace of executions has accelerated in Ohio (it was second only to Texas is executions last year), the Buckeye State has been at the center of death penalty debates in the U.S.  Since the miserably failed execution of Romell Broom (in which he was subjected to two hours of unsuccessful attempts to find a vein suitable for injecting the lethal drugs) Ohio has twice switched execution protocols – first, moving to a one drug method (a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium thiopental), and now, as that drug’s manufacturer has taken it off the market, a one drug dose of a different anesthetic, pentobarbital, which is commonly used to put down animals

The first execution in Ohio to incorporate this new drug is scheduled for March 10.

Meanwhile, those who know Ohio’s death penalty the best have begun to assert that Ohio should just abolish the death penaltyOhio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a state Senator was largely responsible for enacting Ohio’s death penalty law, has called for an end to capital punishment in his state.  And Terry Collins, a former warden who personally witnessed 33 executions, has also urged Ohioans to give up the death penalty.

On the question of capital punishment, Ohio is moving simultaneously in two different directions.  Will Ohio ignore the voices of those most experienced with the death penalty and continue to execute prisoners at a record pace?  Or will the people of Ohio heed those voices and move to shut down Ohio’s incredibly dysfunctional death penalty once and for all?

Opting Out of Our Degrading Death Penalty

The news in today’s New York Times that Hospira, Inc., the only FDA approved manufacturer of the lethal injection anesthetic sodium thiopental, has decided to stop making that drug has thrown the status of U.S. executions into further disarray.  There has been a shortage of the drug for a year, delaying some executions and prompting states to take unusual and often highly secretive measures to find other suppliers.  Now it is clear that the shortage will be permanent.

It is certainly NOT good news that the production of a drug with positive medical uses has been discontinued, but pharmaceuticals (and, for that matter, human beings) are not created to kill people, so using them for that purpose is bound to cause confusion, both moral and legal. 

This ongoing saga, with states scrambling to find drugs for their executions, has only served to illustrate how degrading the whole death penalty enterprise is.  All who participate in it, from the jurors, to the lawyers and judges, to the families of the victims and of the condemned, to the prison guards and wardens, to the medical professionals and drug companies like Hospira, are dragged into a system the sole purpose of which is to kill human beings, a purpose which goes against our most basic principles of human rights and human dignity.

In this case, Hospira has opted out, reiterating in its statement that capital punishment is “a use Hospira has never condoned” for their drug, and lamenting that “our many hospital customers who use the drug for its well-established medical benefits will not be able to obtain the product.”

The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)