Pharmacists Are Getting Closer To Cutting Off Access To Death Penalty Drugs



It may soon become harder for state officials to get their hands on the drugs they need to execute inmates, as major pharmacist organizations keep inching closer toward ceasing to supply that medication.

Pharmacists seem like unlikely targets in the political and ethical debate over the death penalty. But, since they’re the ones who manufacture and distribute lethal drugs, they actually play a key role in the executions of condemned prisoners.

For the states that are regularly executing inmates, American pharmacies have become particularly critical in the wake of growing international opposition to capital punishment. As European companies refuse to sell drugs for use in executions, there’s somewhat of a lethal drug shortage here at home. Officials have started turning to so-called “compounding pharmacies,” which are facilities that mix and repackage drugs to keep down the cost of filling prescriptions, for their supplies.

But that option might not be available for much longer. The Wall Street Journal reports that the leading trade group for compound pharmacists is now discouraging its members from supplying the drugs necessary for lethal injections — in what represents the first official stance the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists (IACP) has ever taken on death penalty issues.

The group, which represents about 3,700 pharmacists across the country who compound drugs, is mainly worried about potential legal repercussions in this area. Since a handful of drug makers have started taking steps to prohibit their products from being used in executions, compounding pharmacists might be liable if they repackage those drugs for the states that want to execute inmates.

David Miller, the chief executive for IACP, told the Wall Street Journal that “we have concerns about what may occur” if compound pharmacists continue to manufacture death penalty drugs. In addition to potential legal issues, Miller is worried that pharmacists may face harassment if their identities are disclosed.

And later this week, in a move that could have further repercussions for capital punishment, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) will meet to discuss a similar policy. If the APhA decides to follow in the IACP’s footsteps and discourage its members from dispensing lethal drugs, that decision will affect about 62,000 professionals across the country who work in traditional pharmacists rather than in compounding facilities.

Most medical groups — including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association — already prohibit their members from assisting in executions. But there’s nothing in the American Pharmacists Association’s code of ethics that explicitly prevents pharmacists from dispensing death penalty drugs. Right now, pharmacists are allowed to dispense lethal medication for use in executions if a “licensed doctor writes a legitimate prescription.”

It’s an unusual loophole in the medical field that has caught the attention of human rights activists. Last spring, several human rights and anti-death penalty groups sent a letter to the APhA pressuring the group to forbid their members from assisting in the execution of inmates. “Participation in executions undermines the position of trust that pharmacists enjoy in this nation,” the letter said.

If states’ access to lethal drugs dwindles even further, they will likely be left looking for alternative ways to end the lives of their prisoners. This week, for example, Utah became the only state to authorize the firing squad as a legal method of execution when lethal injection drugs are not available. Lawmakers in other states like Missouri and Wyoming have also recently suggested bringing back the firing squad. Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia have proposed reinstating the electric chair.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress