Pfizer takes ‘significant’ move to restrict lethal injection drugs

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WASHINGTON: A decision by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to restrict distribution of its products used in lethal injections has cut off the last remaining approved source of drugs for carrying out the death penalty, experts said.

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Capital punishment observers on Saturday hailed the move by New York-based Pfizer as “significant,” noting that it highlights the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition to the misuse of its products.

Pfizer said in a statement on its website that its mission includes making products to enhance and save lives, and therefore the company “strongly objects” to their use in lethal injections.

The statement was posted Friday, according to various US media outlets including The New York Times.

Specifically, Pfizer said it was imposing restrictions on wholesalers, distributors and direct purchasers of seven drugs that are used or considered for use in lethal injection protocols, barring these buyers from reselling them to correctional institutions for lethal injections.

Government purchasers must certify that the products will only be used for “medically prescribed patient care,” the company said.

Slowing executions

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called the move “significant.”

“It’s offensive to the medical mission of the pharmaceutical companies when states misuse these medications which are designed to save lives and improve the quality of lives by instead using them to kill prisoners,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Maya Foa, director of anti-death penalty group Reprieve, said that now more than 25 pharmaceutical companies have made moves to block the use of their products in executions.

“This will mean that all FDA-approved manufacturers of all execution drugs have spoken out against the misuse of medicines in lethal injections and taken steps to prevent it,” she said in a statement.

The United States stands alone among Western nations for its use of the death penalty, but the number of prisoners it executes has slowed to a trickle in recent years — partly due to a lack of drugs.

In 2015, there were 28 executions carried out among the 31 US states with the death penalty.

According to figures from the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,436 people have been executed since 1976 when the United States reinstated the death penalty, reaching a peak of 98 executions in 1999.

Part of the recent drop in numbers is due to a European export ban that stopped pharmaceutical companies producing the drugs from sending them to US prisons.

Prisons generally use a cocktail of three drugs in carrying out lethal injections. One knocks the condemned unconscious, another paralyzes muscles and a third stops the heart.

Some of the lethal injection executions carried out since 2014 have been widely criticized after they made prisoners die slowly while gasping, groaning and convulsing.

The US Constitution bans “cruel and unusual” punishment and defense lawyers have not hesitated to launch last-minute appeals questioning the effectiveness of various drugs, often successfully.

Alternative methods

A few states have tried to revive the pace of executions by passing measures that guarantee anonymity to pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the required drugs.

The states of Georgia, Missouri and Texas have overcome shortages and restrictions by obtaining pentobarbital — which numbs the central nervous system including parts of the brain — from compounding pharmacies.

Compounding pharmacies, which are not as strictly regulated as traditional drug makers, can combine, mix or alter drugs to create individually tailored medications.

Other states, faced with the difficulty of obtaining drugs, have turned to old methods.

Utah has approved the use of the firing squad if lethal injection drugs are unavailable, and Oklahoma — before putting a hold on executions — had approved the gas chamber. AFP

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