A Drug Company Tried to Block the Use of Pentobarbital in Executions, But U.S. States Are Finding Ways Around the Ban

In 2011, the Danish company behind the drug, Lunbeck, banned the sale of pentobarbital for execution purposes.


Shortly after midnight last night, Missouri used a lethal injection to execute Michael Taylor, a man convicted of raping and murding a 15-year-old girl in 1989. Lethal injection is the most common means of execution in the U.S., but Missouri's use of pentobarbital in executions like this one has caused some controversy.

In 2011, the Danish company behind the drug, Lunbeck, banned the sale of pentobarbital for execution purposes. (It is usually used as a sedative.) Here's the Guardian on that decision: 

This is the first time that a major global pharmaceutical company has taken such direct action to tighten up its supply chain to ensure that its drugs are used to benefit the health of patients, not assist in state-sponsored execution. It follows months of pressure from human rights advocates. At the end of last year, US death row states found it difficult to get access to the previous drug, thiopental, for executions following an export ban from the UK.

Now, prisons in the U.S. are having trouble obtaining pentobarbital, too. Last October, a prison in Ohio announced that it did not have enough pentobarbital left to execute Ronald Phillips, who was convicted of raping and murdering a child, Reuters reported. As an alternative, the state decided to use midazolam and hydromorphone, "an untested two-drug cocktail," NBC News described.  

Missouri switched to pentobarbital about a year ago, and it usually gets its drugs from compounding pharmacies, which also have faced controversy. Compounding pharmacies, the Death Penalty Information Center explains, "do not face the same approval process for their products that large manufacturers face, leading to concerns about the safety and efficacy of their products."

Taylor's lawyers sued a compounding pharmacy in Oklahoma called The Apothecary Shoppe several weeks ago in order to prevent the pharmacy from delivering the drugs for Taylor's execution, Time reports. The Apothecary Shoppe backed down, but Missouri wound up finding another compounding pharmacy to process the order. Officials are refusing to disclose the name of that pharmacy, however, stating that execution policy does not require that information to be made available.  

In a last ditch effort, Taylor's lawyers filed an appeal that "questioned the use of an unnamed pharmacy to obtain the drug" and that claimed "the execution drug the state purchased from a compounding pharmacy could cause inhumane pain and suffering," Time says. But that appeal was turned down.

During Taylor's execution, the AP reports, "there were no obvious signs of distress."

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