News Feature | January 21, 2014

US Prisons Use Untraditional Execution Methods After Pharma Boycott

Source: Pharmaceutical Online

By Marcus Johnson

For decades, prisons in the United States have used a particular combination of drugs in order to execute those on death row. In as many as ten states, the formula for an execution was the same—pentobarbital and sodium thiopental would be injected and render the inmate unconscious, then a combination of drugs would stop the inmate’s heart. The problem for US states is that there are no longer any domestic producers of either drug, meaning that it had to be imported from the EU. But with European companies boycotting the practice of execution, prisons in the US have found themselves in a difficult situation.

In order for executions to avoid Constitutional challenge, they have to be deemed “humane”, meaning that they aren’t considered cruel or unusual punishment. If inmates were to be killed in a manner that caused high levels of pain or suffering, then states might have to cease executions altogether. Since the US states performing executions have run out of their stockpile of the drugs needed to render inmates unconscious, they’re starting to turn to different alternatives. In Ohio, they’re turning to untested execution drugs such as midazolam and hydromorphone—but if they don’t keep the inmate unconscious, it could lead to the kind of Constitutional challenge that the states are trying to avoid.

While execution is still legal in a number of US states, the boycott of European companies has sparked something of a debate. It’s also become a relatively intriguing prospect for US based pharmaceutical companies. Domestic companies could start manufacturing the drugs pentobarbital and sodium thiopental, but they’d have to weigh the potential risks and benefits. Prisons buy in bulk, but the number of executions, and thus the potential for high profits, is still relatively low. Any profits made could be offset by potential public backlash in the country. Domestic companies will have to evaluate the economic and political landscape and decide if they want to jump into a controversial business.