Europe blocks export of execution drugs

By agency reporter
December 20, 2011

The European Commission today (20 December) announced that it is blocking the export of certain key lethal injection drugs which are widely used in US executions.

A number of anaesthetics, including substances currently used as the first stage in a three-drug lethal injection ‘cocktail’ by US states, have been placed on a list of controlled substances which could be used in capital punishment.

This is an important first step by the European Union in preventing the unethical use of medicines in executions, although it is still short of the catch-all provisions necessary to ensure that no European drugs of any type are used to kill prisoners. It comes in response to a long-running investigation by the legal charity Reprieve into European complicity in executions by lethal injection.

A draft of the amended regulation seen by Reprieve states: “It is […] necessary to supplement the list of goods subject to trade restrictions to prevent the use of certain medicinal products for capital punishment and to ensure that all Union exporters of medicinal products are subject to uniform conditions in this regard. The relevant medicinal products were developed for inter alia anaesthesia and sedation and their export should therefore not be made subject to a complete prohibition.”

The regulations ban a number of short- and intermediate-acting barbiturates, including sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, which are currently used across executing states in the US as the first stage of a three-drug lethal cocktail – or in some cases, as a large, single, lethal dose.

Reprieve’s Executive Director, Clare Algar said: “This is an important and positive first step in preventing the use of European drugs in executions. However, we need to see a broad, catch-all provision to prevent any drugs from being used in capital punishment in order to ensure Europe is never again complicit in the death penalty.

“This should also make it clear to European firms, wherever they operate, that to continue supplying drugs for use in executions will be a clear breach of the spirit of the law. Any pharmaceutical company wishing to preserve an ethical reputation must take steps to ensure their drugs are not used to kill prisoners.”


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