European drugs to be used in two US executions

By staff writers
27 Apr 2011

Drugs supplied by European pharmaceutical companies are to be used to execute two US prisoners on the 3rd and 6th of May.

Anaesthetics from the Copenhagan based company Lundbeck and UK based Dream Pharma will be used in the executions by lethal injection of Cary Kerr in Texas and Jeffrey Motts in South Carolina.

Several states have large supplies of sodium thiopental, the anaesthetic due to be used in the execution of Jeffrey Motts, which they were able to acquire from the UK during the delay before the British government imposed export controls. The legal charity Repreive says there are serious concerns that the drug, bought "through back-channels" from a tiny firm in an office in a driving school in Acton, may be faulty – leaving prisoners in severe pain during their executions. Reprieve reports that three botched executions using the drug have already been carried out.

Meanwhile, Lundbeck continues to supply the barbiturate pentobarbital through a facility based in the USA. The barbiturate, which is marketed as Nembutal in the US and is used to treat epileptic seizures, was not intended for use in lethal injections and has never been clinically tested for that purpose. The new protocol , which Repreive says has been hastily adopted by Texas in less than three weeks, without scientific or medical consultation, is recognised to be particularly dangerous. It calls for pentobarbital followed by pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride: a combination explicitly outlawed by vets for the practice of animal euthanasia.

The execution of Cary Kerr on Tuesday will be the first in Texas using this lethal injection cocktail, and if the state Department of Corrections (which Reprieve describes as boasting the busiest execution chamber in the USA) has its way, it may be the first of many.

Death rows in the US have been looking abroad for execution drugs since the only domestic supplier ended production of sodium thiopental, the first stage of the three drug execution cocktail which was widely used until recently.

Governments and pharmaceutical firms in Britain, Italy, Austria and India have found ways to prevent the use of their drugs for killing prisoners. Although Lundbeck has expressed shock that its product is to be used in executions and has written to officials of the US states planning to use the drug for executions, saying they are “adamantly opposed to the use of Nembutal for the purpose of capital punishment”, the company has failed to take further action.

Lundbeck has been criticised by Reprieve and Amnesty International who believe ‘end user’ agreements are a means of preventing importers from selling the drug to prisons for use in executions.

However, Lundbeck spokesperson Mads Kronborg has told the Copenhagen Post that the company could not ask a distributor to sign such an agreement because there was no way to guarantee the end usage of the product.

"But we are not just sitting on our hands" said Kronberg, "We have been looking into the problem and there’s nothing that we can do to control where the product ends up.”

" We can’t withdraw the product because it is used for treating severe epilepsy and sometimes it’s the only treatment option,” added Kronborg. “All we can do is write to the prisons urging them to stop misusing using our product which was designed to help sick people."

Reprieve Investigator Maya Foa argued that even if there were to be trouble in enforcing the agreements, it was still better than taking no action.

“They’re saying that because the agreements won’t be 100 per cent effective there’s no point in having them and that the prisons will just find an alternative" she said. "But even if it isn’t totally successful, Lundbeck could still lead the way. This is an effective option to stop their drug from being used to kill people.”

She added, “We will continue to put pressure on them because they are accountable.”

[Ekk/4]

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