The UK Government has this week decided to impose strict export controls on the anaesthetic propofol, following the revelation that American prisons planned to use the medicine to execute prisoners.
In a further blow to US death penalty states already struggling with shortages of lethal drugs, the Business Secretary Vince Cable wrote to Clive Stafford Smith, Director of the legal charity Reprieve: “I have decided that I will impose a national Control Order on the export of propofol to the United States.”
In May, the state of Missouri became the first to announce its intention to use propofol to kill prisoners. The state had previously used the barbiturate sodium thiopental, in conjunction with two other drugs, until action by domestic manufacturers and European export controls blocked its supply to US executioners.
Some states then moved to a secondary barbiturate, pentobarbital, but the drug’s Danish manufacturer Lundbeck responded by imposing strict distribution controls. Missouri was then forced to resort to propofol, a new category of drug which has never been used in capital punishment.
The British Business Secretary’s decision to control UK-US exports of propofol will now prevent Missouri, and all US execution chambers, from sourcing this experimental execution drug from Britain. Reprieve has welcomed the move and is urging the European Commission to follow suit (as it did in 2011 when the UK moved to control exports of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital) with an amendment to a European Regulation to protect other European manufacturers from unwittingly facilitating US executions.
The Business Secretary’s letter states: “I have instructed my officials in the Export Control Organisation to start work on the necessary licensing arrangements. Our policy in this case will be to put a process in place to expedite any requests to export propofol to legitimate end-users, but to refuse licenses for direct exports to correctional authorities in the United States, and also in cases where we assess that there is a clear risk of diversion to correctional authorities.”
Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said: “This is a welcome and timely move by the British government, reflecting their longstanding ethical opposition to capital punishment. The new export control will go a long way to protecting the British pharmaceutical industry from unwitting complicity in executions in the USA, but more action will have to be taken at a European level to fully shut off the supply of execution drugs from Europe to US death chambers."
She concluded: "Manufacturers themselves will have to remain especially vigilant, restricting the distribution of their medicines in the US lest they end up inadvertently fuelling the machinery of death."