This Court Ruling may have Been More Important than the Federal Halt to the Arkansas Executions

by Christian Dem in NC –

By now, you know that a federal judge in Little Rock called a halt to Arkansas’ execution marathon. But that may not have been the most important ruling issued in this affair. A day earlier, a state court judge rapped the state Department of Correction hard for tricking a drug distributor into selling it one of the drugs it used in its lethal injection cocktail.

Arkansas uses three drugs to carry out executions. Midazolam is intended to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide stops his breathing, and potassium chloride stops his heart. While most of the current furor over lethal injections centers around questions about whether midazolam will really knock someone out, Arkansas is under fire for how it obtained its supply of vecuronium bromide from McKesson.

Vecuronium bromide is made by Pfizer. As I noted at Liberal America, that drug is one of several Pfizer now monitors all the way to the end user in order to make sure it is not used in executions. A few weeks after Arkansas got a shipment of vecuronium bromide, Pfizer and McKesson got word that the state planned to use it for lethal injections. McKesson demanded the drugs’ return, and the Department of Correction initially agreed. However, after the department got a full refund it reneged and instead demanded a substitute product.

After nine months of legal wrangling, McKesson issued an ultimatum to the state—unless the vecuronium bromide was returned or the state gave written assurance that it would not be used in executions, McKesson would take “appropriate (read: legal) action.”

In a letter to the department, McKesson outlined a campaign of staggering deceit. Apparently the Department of Correction had used the account of its medical director to buy the drugs. In so doing, it certified that the vecuronium bromide would not be used in executions, and was aware that Pfizer did not approve of its use in correctional facilities.

McKesson sued the Department of Correction on Thursday. As exhibits, it included testimony from the department’s director and deputy director in the federal case in which both stated they were aware Pfizer did not approve of its products’ use in executions.

Presented with this evidence, state circuit judge Wendell Griffen sided with McKesson, and ordered the state not to use the vecuronium bromide it bought from McKesson pending a hearing on Tuesday.

How important is this ruling? Well, Pfizer is the last FDA-approved maker of many drugs used in executions—and hence, the only open-source provider for these drugs. In the face of a growing consensus in the pharmaceutical industry that the death penalty is inherently inhumane, a number of states have done end runs around these companies’ refusal to let their products be used in executions. This may be the first time that a state has been busted for it.

I never thought I’d see the day I’d be openly rooting for Big Pharma. But McKesson and Pfizer not only drew a line in the sand, but are now backing it up with action.


eprinted with permission from Daily Kos