Shortages of anaesthetic drugs usually used in lethal injection, the most common method of execution, are forcing states to find alternative sedatives. Propofol, used up to 50 million times a year in US surgical procedures, has never been used in an execution. If the execution had gone ahead, US hospitals could have lost access to the drug because 90% of the US supply is made and exported by a German company subject to European Union (EU) regulations that restrict the export of medicines and devices that could be used for capital punishment or torture. Fearing a ban on propofol sales to the United States, in 2012 the drug’s manufacturer, Fresenius Kabi in Bad Homburg, ordered its US distributors not to provide the drug to prisons.
This is not the first time that the EU’s anti-death-penalty stance has affected the US supply of anaesthetics. Since 2011, a popular sedative called sodium thiopental has been unavailable in the United States. The manufacturer, US company Hospira, abandoned plans to produce the drug at its plant in Italy after regulators in the country required that the thiopental never be used in executions. The drug, which is difficult and costly to make, was already in short supply because of manufacturing problems.
“There has been a collision of the politics of capital punishment in the United States and Europe, forcing us to hopscotch around looking for suitable methods for anaesthesia,” says Jerry Cohen, a former president of the American Society of Anesthesiology.