Maryland Death Penalty Meets Globalization

February 18, 2011

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.

In a world where there has been a concerted (though not 100% successful) effort to track diamonds from their source to ensure that “blood diamonds” don’t make it into the world market, it’s not a stretch to imagine similar measures being taken to ensure that drugs created for healing the sick don’t end up being used to kill prisoners.  In short, the global nature of the pharmaceutical marketplace, and the increasing opposition to capital punishment outside the US – 2/3 of the world’s countries no longer use the death penalty –  may make it very difficult for Maryland and other states to settle on lethal injection protocols that can actually be implemented.

These factors beyond the state’s control mean that Maryland’s death penalty may become even more of a false promise for families of murder victims (and a huge waste of money for Maryland taxpayers).  The 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment has already concluded, by a 20-1 vote, that the death penalty is worse for victims’ families than alternative sentences (with all victim family members on the commission in agreement).

Fortunately, for Maryland at least, there is an easy way out of this mess.  Bills calling for the state’s moribund death penalty to finally be repealed have been filed in both the House and Senate, each with a record number of cosponsors.  Though there is a lot on the table for this years’ legislative session in Maryland, lawmakers should take some time to pass this legislation, sparing victims’ families from endless ordeals, and preserving taxpayer dollars for more important needs.