European Drugs And U.S. Executions

June 10, 2011

Ever since the production of the anesthetic sodium thiopental was discontinued by its U.S. source (Hospira, Inc.), because of concerns over its use in executions, pentobarbital has rapidly become the anesthetic of choice for U.S. executioners.  Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have already carried out executions with it.

Denmark-based Lundbeck is the company whose version of pentobarbital (known as Nembutal) has been used in all these executions, and is slated to be used in at least 6 of the 7 executions scheduled for the rest of June.  (Georgia officials claim they have a different version of pentobarbital, provided to them by Cardinal Health of Ohio; Lundbeck says its drug HAS been sold to Georgia.)

Lundbeck has always objected to the use of its drug in executions, stating things like: “This is fully against what we stand for.”   But prison officials in executing states have been unmoved by this rhetoric.  So now, after some aggressive prompting from campaigning groups like Reprieve, Lundbeck says they are planning to take things up a notch.

First, Lundbeck says it will intensify its objections, with the added assertion that the drug is “not safe” for use in executions.  Lundbeck may also attempt to attach end user agreements to future sales of the drug or use special distributors.   In April, the government of Denmark sent a letter to U.S. states urging them to cease using Lundbeck’s product in executions.

Even if all these things are done, it still remains to be seen how effective, even temporarily, these efforts will be.  Europe had always been the leader in the fight for global abolition, but has so far been thoroughly impotent in preventing its drugs from reaching U.S. executioners.

Beyond what Lundbeck and Denmark may be doing, Europe could and should proactively ban the sale of ALL drugs to those who would use them in executions. This wouldn’t immediately help with states that already have what they need, but it could keep European drugs out of other states and would be important in future years as states seek to replenish their supplies.