Across the United States, states utilizing lethal injection as a mode for capital punishment have confronted drug shortages. Pharmaceutical companies have taken a stand against aiding the practice of lethal injection, seeking to avoid association with executions for ethical reasons. The consequence was a recall and a refusal to sell products to corrections agencies used for lethal injection. States impacted by this shortage responded in multiple ways, acquiring drugs internationally, changing procedures to electrocution or the firing squad, and switching their drug protocol. Altering drug protocols, including the controversial drug Fentanyl has led to extensive criticism from multiple sectors.
Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck announced in July 2011 it has restricted the supply of drugs to government agencies for the purpose of execution. This policy would prohibit Akorn, Inc. Illinois based company from selling controversial drug, Nembutal, for execution purposes. Moreover, advocacy on the part of Lundbeck led to the shut down of the FDA-approved pentobarbital to U.S. prisons, leading 10 other pharmaceutical companies to follow
Of these companies, an example is Pfizer. After acquiring Hospira— pharmaceutical company that provided the correctional industry seven drugs, and became responsible for an agonizing execution in Ohio in 2014— Pfizer restricted the sale of the seven drugs used for executions.
The justification for prohibiting drug use for execution is largely rooted in ethical reasons. In the last five years manufacturers are increasingly seeking to avoid association with executions due to the botched executions, and the contracting nature of having drugs intended for curative purposes simultaneously used for execution. Advocate and director of the death-penalty team at Reprieve, Maya Foa emphasizes the responsibility of pharmaceutical manufactures to produce medicines for improving and saving lived of patients.
Executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Richard C. Dieter, further explains that drugs such as nembutal, sodium thiopental, or propofol are not designed to kill people.
The timing of drug restrictions is reflective of advocacy to abolish capital punishment and growing public disapproval of capital punishment in the United States. A Gallup poll taken in 2017, reveals that since 1972 Americans support for the death penalty has decreased, with opposition in 2017 reaching 41%. In accordance with this, specific pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals are following suit in denouncing the role of medicine in executions.
The unintended consequence associated with this form of advocacy has been the use of untested, experimental drug cocktails. Nevada’s solution to the drug shortage is using a new drug combination, fentanyl, diazepam, and cisatracurium. Susi Vassallo, a New York University professor of emergency medicine has commented on the lacking scientific basis for the drug combination and the increased risk factors associated with incorrectly administering the cocktail. Further, Joel B. Zivot, an Emory University anesthesiologist explains that drugs fentanyl and diazepam are limited in their ability to act as pain blockers and for psychosomatic purposes. The questionable effectiveness of Nevada’s cocktail increases risk for painful and inhumane executions.Other states incorporating fentanyl in their drug cocktail due to drug shortages are also running the risk of cruel and unusual executions.
As pharmaceutical companies resist by curbing correctional facilities access to fentanyl, we as grassroots activists must persist in our fight to abolish the death penalty. There is no method for humane, just, and safe lethal executions— we must abolish the Death Penalty in order to prevent risky executions.
-- Jacqueline Lantsman