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Pfizer Blocks the Use of Its Drugs in Executions

by Erik Ekholm, New York Times, 13 May 2016

Mr Ekholm reports that Pfizer, a large pharmaceutical company, now requires wholesalers of seven drugs promise they will not be used for executions in the United States. The company says that “Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve, and strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.”

Lawyers for condemned inmates have challenged the efforts of corrections officials to conceal how the drugs are obtained, saying this makes it impossible to know if they meet quality standards or might cause undue suffering.

“States are shrouding in secrecy aspects of what should be the most transparent government activity,” said Ty Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Before Missouri put a prisoner to death on Wednesday, for example, it refused to say in court whether the lethal barbiturate it used, pentobarbital, was produced by a compounding pharmacy or a licensed manufacturer. 

Less than a decade ago, lethal injection was generally portrayed as a simple, humane way to put condemned prisoners to death. Virtually all executions used the same three-drug combination: sodium thiopental, a barbiturate, to render the inmate unconscious, followed by a paralytic and a heart-stopping drug.

In 2009, technical production problems, not the efforts of death-penalty opponents, forced the only federally approved factory that made sodium thiopental to close. That, plus more stringent export controls in Europe, set off a cascade of events that have bedeviled state corrections agencies ever since.

Many states have experimented with new drug combinations, sometimes with disastrous results, such as the prolonged execution of Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona in 2014, using the sedative midazolam. The state’s executions are delayed as court challenges continue.

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In 2014 Tamara Tabo, a law academic in Texas, asked:

Why can’t prisons use the same drugs that doctors in Oregon use? The answer is: they often do. Why then don’t Death With Dignity Act patients experience the same sorts of complications that some capital offenders have? The answer is: they often do.

In Oregon between 1998 and 2012, six out of 681 DWDA patients regained consciousness after ingesting the lethal DWDA medications. (Their numbers are included in the metrics for patients receiving and ingesting DWDA drugs, but they are not included in tallies for DWDA deaths.) In 2005, a patient regained consciousness 65 hours after taking the medication, subsequently dying from the underlying illness fourteen days after awakening. In 2010, one patient regained consciousness 88 hours after ingesting the medication, subsequently dying from underlying illness three months later. Another patient the same year regained consciousness within 24 hours, subsequently dying from underlying illness five days following ingestion. In 2011, a patient regained consciousness approximately 14 hours after ingesting the medication and died about 38 hours later. Another patient briefly regained consciousness after ingestion and died from the underlying illness 30 hours later. One 2004 prescription recipient became unconscious 25 minutes after ingestion, then regained consciousness 65 hours later.

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