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Pharmacy Groups Balk at Supplying Lethal Injection Drugs

Two trade groups that represent pharmacies have come out against supplying the killer cocktails.
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/ Source: NBC News

Death-penalty states scrambling to find drugs for lethal injections are facing a new hurdle: two groups that represent compounding pharmacists have told their members to stop making the killer cocktails.

The American Pharmacists Association voted Monday to oppose participation in executions, declaring that helping put prisoners to death violates the goals and oath of the profession. The move comes a week after the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists adopted a similar stance.

Neither policy is binding, but they could dissuade specialty pharmacists — now the only source for lethal injections in many states — from selling their products to prisons for executions.

"It adds to the difficulty," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment. "It's unfortunate that groups such as this would allow themselves to be dragged into a political dispute."

But Corinna Lain, a professor at the Richmond School of Law, said it has more to do with the bottom line. With just 35 executions across the country last year, lethal injections are not a big profit center.

"The cost of these drugs has skyrocketed from something like $83 a vial to $1,200 to $1,500 a vial. But that's still a drop in the bucket for a pharmacy's total sales. And look at the downside — the negative publicity is tremendous.

"Executions are bad for business for compounding pharmacies for the same reason they were bad for business for the pharmaceutical companies."

"I expect states will eventually find a supply and this problem will go away"

The big manufacturers of the chemicals that were used in executions for years have stopped selling their wares to correctional systems under pressure from anti-death penalty activists.

That has forced states to turn to compounding pharmacies for specialty orders — but their products are not FDA-approved and critics have expressed concern about the sterility and quality of the drugs.

That may seem beside the point to some, given that the chemicals are being used to kill. But because the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, the effect the drugs have is legally important.

Lawyers for condemned inmates have argued — largely without success — that made-to-order injections could contain shoddy drugs and cause an excruciating death.

Compounding pharmacies exposed as execution suppliers have also been targeted by protests, and several have decided they would not sell to prisons any more.

In response, a wave of states have enacted secrecy laws that protect the anonymity of the pharmacies, and anyone else involved in the execution process. Those laws have also been challenged, but so far the U.S. Supreme Court has not stopped an execution because of them.

Scheidgger said he hopes that at least a few compounding pharmacies will buck the trade groups and continue to sell their products to prisons until a new source is found.

"I expect states will eventually find a supply and this problem will go away," he said.