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Shortage of Lethal Injection Drug Opportunity for Manufacturer to Do the Right Thing

Posted Oct 03 2010 12:37pm

Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

This month, a shortage of the drug sodium thiopental has made headlines .  Indicated for a number of uses, most related to anesthesia induction, the drug is largely employed for just one off-label use: execution.  Per the New York Times , sodium thiopental’s manufacturer, Hospira, “has blamed the shortage on ‘raw-material supplier issues’ since last spring, first promising availability in July, then October, then early 2011. The company has refused to elaborate on the problem. But according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press from the Kentucky governor’s office, Hospira told state officials that it lost its sole supplier of the drug’s active ingredient and was trying to find a new one.”

In an NPR story , Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, explains that “[s]tates can’t just change their method of execution without either some legislation or at least an administrative procedure - that goes before public comment . . . And so to make the change is a six-month or a year process.”  In all likelihood, the new method of execution would then be subjected to constitutional challenge.  And so a number of states have delayed executions in anticipation that the sodium thiopental shortage will ease; there are likely to be more delays in the coming months.

The AP reports that “Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon and death penalty opponent who researches the issue, speculated the real reason for the unavailability of sodium thiopental is that its medical uses ‘have shrunk to the point that the company doesn’t want to make a drug that has no use but to kill people.’”  Hospira denies that there is any ulterior motive behind the shortage, although it has stated in the past that “‘[t]he drug is not indicated for capital punishment, and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure.’”  Regardless of the reason or reasons for the shortage, Hospira should use it as an opportunity to do the right thing and exit the market for sodium thiopental.  As Jim Edwards of the Placebo Effect blog put it, by doing so the company would “earn itself kudos from the medical community and burnish its brand as a company that helps people live, not die.”

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