May 15, 2016
Pfizer Drugs No Longer Allowed For Executions, States Must Find Alternative Method For Capital Punishment

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer just made a stand against capital punishment. In a statement released Friday, the giant drugmaker announced none of its medicines are appropriate for use in executions by lethal injection.

"Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment," the company wrote.

Pfizer wants U.S. states to stop using their drugs in executions.
Pfizer wants states to stop using their medicines for capital punishment. [Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images]

The prohibition puts many states that regularly execute prisoners in a somewhat of a bind. Pfizer was pretty much the last source for drugs used for lethal injections, as most other pharmaceutical companies have similar bans.

According to Maya Foa, the executive director of the human-rights group Reprieve, many states will need to "go underground" to get drugs.

"The drug companies never wanted their medicines used in executions. Their position has always been 'we make these medicines to save lives, please don't use them in executions'. It's bad to have your product associated with death."

Ohio currently has more than 24 inmates waiting on death row with scheduled execution dates, yet the state has no accessible drugs to carry out the punishments. The last time someone was put to death in Ohio was January 2014, as the state keeps postponing any new executions while it finds a new drug supplier.

A shortage of pharmaceutical companies willing to sell drugs for executions has not slowed down the busiest capital punishment state in the nation. Texas gets pentobarbital for its lethal injections from an unnamed provider.

A 2015 law allows the state to keep the supplier a secret, so the company Texas buys the drug from is listed as a "licensed compounding pharmacy." A lawsuit trying to force the state to name its suppliers was filed in April 2014 after some creative attorneys unsuccessfully tried to stop the executions of two death row inmates. Similar lawsuits have also been filed in Georgia, Arkansas, and Missouri.

Texas has executed six inmates so far this year, and another eight are on the calendar within the next few months. Since the beginning of the year, 14 prisoners have been put to death in five states. If the rate continues, the number of executions in the U.S. will outpace last year's total of 28.

Pfizer's ban on lethal injection drugs probably won't stop states that have laws which allow the employment of other methods for execution. Utah, for instance, can use a firing squad if drugs aren't available. If lethal injection is not an option in Oklahoma, the state is authorized to use nitrogen gas to kill condemned prisoners.

If the state of Tennessee lacks the drugs, executioners can use the electric chair if needed. Virginia is thinking about doing the same thing.

Pfizer wants all states to stop using thier drugs for purposes of execution.
The pace of executions will probably not be slowed even with Pfizer's stand against using their drugs as a method to kill prisoners. [Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers]

The move by Pfizer may be less about principles and more about its multibillion-dollar purchase of Hospira. Before the acquisition, Hospira banned all of its products from being used for capital punishment.

The drugs Pfizer has prohibited from use in executions are pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, propofol, midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide, and vecuronium bromide. Yet, these drugs have been on Pfizer's ban list even before Friday's statement.

"Our distribution plan, which restricts the sale of these seven products for unintended uses, implements our publicly stated position against improper use of our products and, most importantly, doesn't stand in the way of patient access to these critical medications," an October 2015 statement read. "However, due to the complex supply chain and the gray market in the United States, despite our efforts, Pfizer cannot guarantee that a U.S. prison could not secure restricted products through other channels not under Pfizer's control."

Pfizer's stance on the use of its drugs for purposes of execution is just a continuation of the industry's unanimity against participation in capital punishment. However, the ban will only inhibit some states from carrying out the death penalty and drive them to either find alternative methods or seek out suppliers with identities that are hard to trace.

[Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers]