How Oregon's Death-Penalty Drugs Ended Up With a New York Firm

Andrew Cuomo should demand the pharmaceutical reseller prevent the chemicals from being used in execution chambers.

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Updated: 1/9 4:54 p.m.

Since 1986, New York's Devos, Ltd, has steadily built a business with an annual revenue of $32.2 million handling overstocked, expired, or recalled drugs on pharmacy shelves throughout the nation. Operating as Guaranteed Returns, Devos is the industry leader in a specialized business called reverse pharmaceutical distribution. Reverse pharmaceutical distribution comes out of the need to carefully navigate the minefield of state and federal regulations surrounding controlled substances, and the equally difficult task of complying with hundreds of manufacturers' and wholesalers' strict rules for properly returning or reselling goods that lose all value once improperly stored or tampered with.

New York could serve the nation well by investigating corporations that stock death-chamber drug cabinets.

After Oregon's Department of Corrections (ODOC) got word of Governor John Kitzhaber's November 2011 announcement that he'll no longer enforce the state's death penalty, its pharmacy unit rang up Guaranteed Returns, the reverse distributor of choice for most VA Hospitals. It's unclear if the decision to return rather than destroy the drugs ever reached Governor Kitzhaber's notice before being publicly reported in The Bend Bulletin on December 24. Once aware, the governor took no action and never acknowledged the glaring contradiction with his own recently announced stand against the death penalty, despite the fact that clamping down on America's supply of these drugs is the crux of a new international strategy that puts pressure on death-penalty states.

Guaranteed Returns now possesses Oregon's lethal cocktail mixers, the ODOC told me.

So deciding what to do with $18,000-worth of pentobarbital sodium, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride rests entirely with Guaranteed Returns and its CEO, Dean Volkes. Guaranteed Returns's business model typically involves returning product to the original manufacturer, which could then resell the drugs back into the marketplace. The company also incinerates drugs that are damaged, expired, or have no marketable value.*

Guaranteed Returns has an opportunity to act responsibly where Oregon did not. Rather than sending these drugs back to their manufacturer, which had no problem selling to Oregon's Department of Corrections in the first place, the multi-million-dollar company can eat this $18,000 cost in the name of human rights and incinerate this supply of lethal injection medications.

New York carried out its last execution in 1963, and though capital punishment is still on the books, in 2008 its governor ordered the destruction of the remaining apparatus of death row and the death chamber. If Oregon's Governor Kitzhaber has missed his chance to stop this outrage, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo is now in a position to fix things for him.

Governor Cuomo could ask New York-based pharmaceutical companies and distributors to certify that their medical products won't land in the store rooms of government agencies who will use them to kill people. If these companies don't heed such a warning, New York's Division of Human Rights and its attorney general could serve the nation well by launching investigations into those Empire State corporations that mishandle controlled substances so grievously that they wind up stocking death-chamber drug cabinets.

*This post originally stated that Guaranteed Returns may resell drugs directly to wholesalers. In fact, the company returns the drugs to the manufacturers that produced them. We regret the error.

Image: Associated Press.

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Ford Vox, MD, is a physician, based in Atlanta, who specializes in caring for people with complex brain injuries. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.

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