Foreign Companies Eye U.S. Market for Lethal Injection Drugs

After the American manufacturer of lethal injection drugs pulled out of the market, states have turned to companies from Europe to India to fill the gap


Denmark hasn't had a civilian execution since 1882 and the country banned capital punishment in 1933, except for war crimes, and that exception was removed from the law in 1978.

But next Tuesday, Texas plans to use a drug supplied by a Danish pharmaceutical company, Lundbeck, in the scheduled execution of Cleve Foster, a former Army sergeant convicted for the murder of a 30-year-old woman he had met in a bar. (Foster has always maintained his innocence.)

The Lundbeck drug has already been used for three executions in Oklahoma and one in Ohio, and other states have purchased the drug.

Even though the European Union bans capital punishment, the Danish company is not the only European corporation to supply drugs to American death penalty states. A British company, Dream Pharma, has sold sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, to several states and it has been used in four executions in recent months, in Georgia and Arizona. German and Austrian pharmaceutical companies are also looking at the American capital punishment market.

Lethal injection was first proposed by a New York doctor in the 19th century, who argued it was cheaper than hanging. It has now been adopted by the 33 states that have the death penalty, and is seen as a "more humane" approach than the electric chair or gas chamber. (Utah executed a man by a firing squad last year.)

The general procedure is for the condemned to be strapped onto a gurney and wheeled into the execution chamber. Witnesses observe through a window. The man's arms are swabbed with alcohol and two intravenous tubes are inserted, one in each arm. From another room, unseen by the condemned or the witnesses, the executioners first release sodium thiopental, a general anesthetic, into the tubes. (In surgery, 100 to 150 milligrams are used; for executions, as many as 5,000 milligrams.) This is followed by a muscle relaxant, which paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs, thus making it impossible for the condemned man to breathe. Finally, potassium chloride may be injected, causing death by cardiac arrest.

The scramble for foreign-suppliers of lethal injection drugs, and the surrounding controversy, has arisen because the American company that manufactured sodium thiopental, Hospira, ceased production at its plant in North Carolina last year.

Initially, Hospira was going to import the drug from its plant in Italy after running into manufacturing problems in the U.S., but under pressure from anti-death penalty activists, the Italian government effectively stopped the export by demanding that Hospira guarantee the drug would not be used in executions, which the company declined to do.

Death-penalty states found a British wholesaler that operated out of the back room of a driving school in London. It was called Dream Pharma.

The median price for thiopental is $.97 per 500 mg vial, according to the International Drug Price Indicator. Last July, Dream Pharma sold 50 vials to the Georgia Department of Corrections for $5.81 a vial, according to department documents. The company quickly discovered that American death penalty states were desperate, and that it had a virtual monopoly. Two months later, Dream Pharma more than doubled the price, selling it to Arizona for $12 a vial. California paid three times that, or $35 a vial, in November.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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