US pharmacists join doctors in urging against lethal injection

Paul Buck, AFP I This 29 February, 2000, photo shows the "death chamber" at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

The largest grouping of pharmacists in the United States has announced that it will discourage its members from distributing lethal injection drugs, joining other US healthcare professionals in refusing to take part in executions.


The American Pharmacists Association announced at its annual meeting in San Diego this week that it has decided to advise its members not to provide the drugs used for lethal injections, saying that to do so conflicts with their role as healthcare providers.

“Pharmacists are healthcare providers and pharmacist participation in execution conflicts with the profession’s role on the patient healthcare team,” said Thomas Menighan, the association's CEO, in a press release following the decision.

While the American Pharmacists Association – the largest US association of pharmacists with 62,000 members – does not have the legal authority to bar pharmacies from selling the execution drugs, it can set the ethical standards for pharmacists to follow. The decision follows a similar move by the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists.

US pharmacists have now joined the nationwide associations of doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists with ethics codes restricting members from participating in executions. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology and the American Nurses Association already prohibit members from offering their professional assistance in executions.

"Now there is unanimity among all health professions in the United States who represent anybody who might be asked to be involved in this process,'' said Bill Fassett, a member of the American Pharmacists Association and a professor emeritus of pharmacy law and ethics at Washington State University.

Death by lethal cocktail

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), compounding is the method by which a licensed pharmacist or physician combines, mixes or alters ingredients of a drug to create a medication suitable to the needs of a particular patient or client. Compounded drugs are not approved by the FDA, and the administration doesn’t verify their safety or efficacy.

Prison departments have turned to made-to-order execution compounds because pharmaceutical manufacturers began refusing to sell the drugs after coming under pressure from opponents of the death penalty.

But now the compounded drugs are also becoming harder to come by, with many pharmacies hesitant to put themselves at the risk of harassment by anti-death penalty activists. And with the resultant nationwide shortages, states are scrambling to find alternatives for their scheduled executions.

After a high-profile botched execution using a two-drug formula last year and the court case that followed, Ohio said it would use compounded versions of either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental in the future, both common lethal injection drugs. But the state does not have ready supplies of either one, and all executions scheduled for this year have been delayed to 2016 to give the state time to find a solution.

Return to old execution methods

Given the shortage of lethal drugs, states that still have the death penalty are resorting to other methods. Utah Governor Gary Herbert recently approved the use of firing squads when lethal drugs are not available. Tennessee has approved the use of the electric chair. And Oklahoma is considering legislation that would make it the first state to allow the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method.

While some say that firing squads are faster and more efficient, others call it barbaric. Utah stopped offering inmates the choice of execution by firing squad in 2004, saying it caused too much of a media spectacle and took attention away from the victims.

With lethal injection drugs becoming harder to find, some say the shortage shines a harsh light on the death penalty process itself.

Fassett told the Associated Press that the united front presented by healthcare professionals might force people to face the troubling realities of the death penalty.

Lethal injections have created a sterile setting for executions, he said.

“It’s like we’re not really executing. We’re sort of like taking Spot to the vet. We’re just putting him to sleep, and that’s not true,” Fassett said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)


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