As Execution Drugs Run Dry, Attention Turns To Source Of Shortage

Feb 19, 2014
Originally published on February 19, 2014 7:02 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Next week, the state of Missouri plans to execute Michael Taylor. He was convicted of raping and killing a 15-year-old girl. But the state does not yet know how it will kill Taylor. And other states face the same problem, a nationwide shortage of the drugs commonly used in lethal injections. As a result, some states have resorted to improvised and untested cocktails of drugs that have led to clearly painful executions and a flurry of lawsuits from death row inmates.

We're going to focus now on the reasons for the shortage with Associated Press reporter Juergen Baetz. He joins us from Brussels. Welcome to the program.

JUERGEN BAETZ: Hi. I'm glad to join you.

CORNISH: Now, first, we should clarify, what are the drugs that states have been trying to get their hands on?

BAETZ: The usual execution mixture, the lethal injection usually consists of three drugs. And there's one drug, sodium thiopental, which they've had a hard time getting their hands on basically since 2010. There are other drugs that are also harder to get by the day in the U.S., but this one is really key. And they've tried to replace it. But as soon as they come up with an idea to replace it, the European Union or the companies involved act so that other drug then becomes unavailable too.

CORNISH: So let's go back a little bit for a context. Back in 2010, that's when Hospira, that was the one U.S. company that was still making sodium thiopental, which is one of these drugs use for lethal injections, they decided to stop. What can you tell us about this company and why they wanted out of this particular corner of the drug business?

BAETZ: Well, so this pharmaceutical company, they were overhauling their plan. They were never happy with seeing the drug used for executions, which is the case for most pharmaceutical companies. They're in the health business and being part of what, at the end, serves to kill people is never good publicity for them. So that was also the case for Hospira. So they stopped production of this particular drug in California.

And they were planning to move the production to Italy, but Italy is part of the European Union, which is fiercely hostile to the death penalty. And so the Italian authorities there demanded this U.S. company that they must guarantee the drug would never be used in executions in the United States or elsewhere. And the drug manufacturer had to admit it couldn't provide that guarantee and so they decided it wasn't worth it. And they never even started the production in Italy.

CORNISH: So when the U.S. drugmaker Hospira got out of this business, many state prison systems turned to European drugmakers. And, of course, those companies quickly ran into roadblocks. What happened?

BAETZ: So the European Union had started in 2005 to introduce export controls on anything that could be use to torture people or that could be use in executing people. So that applies to the entire world. It's just that the United States, of course, which has a very established protocols in - of drugs that have to be used, they sort of have been hit the hardest by these export controls. And it turned out to be a cat and mouse game. The U.S. state authorities asked one manufacturer, then they turned to another country. But eventually, the European Union caught up or the drug companies dropped out of the market. So in the end, the U.S. state authorities were left standing alone.

CORNISH: We've talked here about the U.S. and Europe, but are there any other markets that are open to manufacturing these drugs, another source, say, in China or India?

BAETZ: Well, there is, of course, that the U.S. has pretty high standards when it comes to the import of drugs. The Food and Drug Administration has, I think, a good reputation for being pretty strict. So you can't just ask a lab in, say, China or India to produce the same things. Then, of course, it's also an issue of patents. They - maybe they're just not allowed to produce that same drug. And finally, pharmaceutical companies don't want to be involved in the death penalty. Even if they're not opposed to it, it's bad publicity for them. And they have, financially speaking, almost nothing to gain.

There was one incident where an Indian company was, in fact, asked to provide one of the drugs. And as soon as they got wind that someone was buying it to resell it to U.S. correction authorities, they immediately halted those sales and cut all contacts with that person reselling it. And they said they don't want to be involved in the death penalty.

CORNISH: Juergen Baetz is a reporter with the Associated Press. He joined us from Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.