Over the objections of doctors and the warnings of the European Union, the state of Missouri recently proposed to execute a death-row inmate using a lethal dose of propofol, a widely used anesthesia drug. Both Missouri and Texas have said that they intend to use propofol for executions as their supply of other drugs used in lethal injections has been running out, as European and Asian companies have refused to sell the drugs out of the fear that they would be used for capital punishment.
Missouri had announced that it would execute Allen Niklasson on October 23 with a lethal dose of propofol. He was convicted of killing three people who had stopped to offer him roadside assistance. The Missouri Department of Corrections had only acquired the drug in the form of 20 50-milliliter vials of Diprivan by mistake last September, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when Shreveport, Louisiana-based Morris & Dickson (one of 14 U.S. companies licensed to sell propofol) accidentally sent the drug to the Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, the site of the state’s execution chamber.
Companies licensed to sell propofol in the United States must follow strict guidelines not to send it to correction departments. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, Morris & Dickson said that it had experienced a “system failure” and only realized its error in October. A number of efforts by the company and by a representative from Fresenius to have the drugs returned proved unsuccessful, with the Bonne Terre prison’s warden refusing to hand over the propofol on the orders of his superiors.
As of Wednesday, Missouri has agreed to return the mistakenly sent propofol, which it had also planned to use in another execution scheduled on November 20.
Missouri’s eleventh-hour decision to return drugs that its correction department had wrongfully acquired followed several days of pleading by doctors, the drug company, the drug distributor and European officials.
The Missouri Society of Anesthesiologist and national chapters of the Anesthesiologist Association had been pleading to Missouri governor Jay Nixon that propofol not be used in executions. Millions of hospital patients undergoing surgery in U.S. hospitals could have immediately been affected had Missouri proceeded with its plans. Propofol is preferred by anesthesiologists as, compared to other such drugs, it works quickly and patients suffer fewer side effects in waking up. About 50 million vials of propofol are administered in 15,000 hospitals and clinics in the U.S. every day; it is the drug used in four out of five anesthetic procedures.
89 percent of propofol is manufactured in the E.U., which is strongly opposed to capital punishment and which has set stringent rules about the export of anesthetics to the United States to ensure that they are not used for “capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Markus Loning, Germany’s Human Rights Commissioner, had warned Nixon that proceeding with the execution of Niklasson using propofol “would almost certainly lead to strict export controls” that could lead to shortages of the drug and threaten the health and well-being of U.S. patients.
Due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs, Missouri’s attorney general Christ Koster has previously said that the state wants to revive the use of the gas chamber to execute inmates on death row. In its statement about returning the propofol that was wrongly sent, the state of Missouri noted that it still has a supply of propofol which “was produced by a domestic manufacturer.”
It is unconscionable that Missouri has jeopardized the health of thousands of Americans to carry out executions. The state’s increasingly desperate search for drugs to use in executions, and its proposal to use other means including the gas chamber, are all the more reason that it (and other states including California and Texas) must ban the death penalty.
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