The largest pharmacist association in the country has voted to discourage its members from participating in executions.
The move could make executions harder for states such as Texas that have turned to questionable compounding pharmacies for made-to-order drugs after big pharmaceutical companies — under pressure from death penalty opponents — decided to stop selling their drugs to U.S. prisons.
The American Pharmacists Association voted on the new policy at its annual meeting in San Diego on Monday. The policy says it is discouraging its members from participating in executions because it is “fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care.”
In a statement, the association’s CEO Thomas Menighan said: “Pharmacists are health care providers and pharmacist participation in executions conflicts with the profession’s role on the patient health care team. This new policy aligns APhA with the execution policies of other major health care associations including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Board of Anesthesiology.”
As international opinion turns sharply against the death penalty — only 22 nations not currently experiencing military conflict carried out an execution in 2013 — American states that still carry out executions are finding it harder and hard to obtain the drugs they use to kill people. Europe imposed tight restrictions on the exportation of several drugs used in executions, and many drug manufacturers simply refuse to sell the drugs to state officials who intend to use them to kill someone. The result is that many states have turned to compounding pharmacies, which sell loosely regulated drugs of uncertain quality, to obtain drugs for executions.
The Associated Press reports that, under pressure from death penalty opponents, some compounding pharmacies had already stopped providing drugs to U.S. states. The AP adds:
Texas’ prison agency scrambled this month to find a supplier to replenish its inventory, then found a supply from a compounded pharmacy it won’t identify. Also this month, an execution in Georgia was put off when prison authorities questioned the appearance of the compounded pentobarbital they planned to use.
After a troubling use of a two-drug method last year, Ohio said it will use compounded versions of either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental in the future, though it doesn’t have supplies of either drug and hasn’t said how it will obtain them. All executions scheduled this year were pushed to 2016 to give the state more time to find the drugs.
Others states are turning to alternative methods.
Tennessee has approved the use of the electric chair if lethal-injection drugs aren’t available, while Utah has reinstated the firing squad as a backup method if it can’t obtain the drugs. Oklahoma is considering legislation that would make it the first state to allow the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method.
The APhA represents some 62,000 practicing pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, student pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. The AP explains that its positions aren’t legally binding, but hold the same kind of ethical sway that a pronouncement by the American Medical Association does for doctors.
The APhA’s declaration comes in the aftermath of a string of botched executions, including the controversial death of inmate Clayton Lockett last year in Oklahoma. Lockett died of a heart attack in April 2014, minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren’t being administered properly. Before he died, Lockett was seen writhing in pain on the gurney — at one point yelling, “something’s wrong!” — and then starting to seize uncontrollably. One reporter on the scene described it as “watching someone being tortured.”
The issues surrounding lethal injection drugs have spark renewed debate over whether or not it is even possible to carry out an execution that does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. While lethal injection is often portrayed as the more humane, supposedly painless execution method, that’s not how it always plays out in reality. The U.S. has a long, dark history of botched executions — and now that many states are resorting to anonymous overseas and illegal sources for execution drugs, the outcomes are anything but painless.