British government must intervene TODAY to stop California obtaining UK drugs to kill 85 prisoners in the US; shipment of lethal injection drug now in transit but may be stopped by immediate action

December 7, 2010

Business Secretary Vince Cable now has a matter of hours to prevent British-sourced lethal injection drug sodium thiopental from reaching US executioners, after it emerged that California has already paid for a shipment from the UK.

California authorities admitted yesterday that they had ordered 521 grams (85 doses) of the drug from Archimedes Pharma, based in Reading. The shipment has now left the Britain, but has reportedly not yet been released by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Business Secretary Vince Cable must disclose when his export ban on the drug came into effect, and order an immediate investigation into whether it was breached.

Meanwhile, the FDA has publicly stated that sodium thiopental may not be legally imported to the US for any purpose, let alone executions, and therefore may be under an obligation to block it. This is the last chance for Business Secretary Vince Cable to intervene, by contacting the FDA to challenge the legality of the import.

While the trade price of California’s shipment should be no more than $1,000, state authorities have paid $36,415 for it – a blood money mark up of 3,500%.

Today’s desperate situation affects the entire US prison system. Death rows across America are now sharing their dwindling stocks of execution drugs, so a successful import of 85 doses to California will doubtless be used to kill prisoners in other states.

One prisoner, Jeffrey Landrigan, has already been killed by British drugs in Arizona, and at least 85 now face the same fate – including various British prisoners on death row in California. It is crucial that the British government acts immediately to prevent complicity in further tragedies.

Reprieve’s Director Clive Stafford Smith said:

“Thus far, we have seen talk, but no action. Meanwhile the drugs keep leaking out of Britain, with some unethical company marking the price up 3500 percent, making obscene blood money, and contributing to the deaths of scores of prisoners. Vince Cable must take action within hours, or all may be lost.”

For more information please contact Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, Commissioner, FDA, tel: (US) 301-575-0156 or Vince Cable, Business Secretary, tel: (UK) 020 7215 5000 or 020 7215 6740

Notes for Editors:


The US has recently run short of Sodium Thiopental, one of the drugs used in the execution protocol. On Monday 25th October, Jeffery Landrigan was executed in Arizona using drugs supplied by a British company – despite a plea for clemency from the judge who sentenced him to death. The Arizona consignment was sufficient for four executions, so the British company will contribute to three more deaths there.

Soon afterwards, the American lawyers for Edmund Zagorski contacted Reprieve with a plea for help: Tennessee was seeking to purchase the drugs to kill Mr Zagorski, apparently from the same British company. On Thursday 28th October, Reprieve and Leigh Day contacted the Government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Mr Zagorski’s execution. On Monday, November 1st, Mr. Cable responded that the British government would take no such step, because if the US did not get the drug from the UK it would just go elsewhere. Mr. Cable also said he was unwilling to interfere unnecessarily in US-UK trade. On behalf of the FCO, Jeremy Browne took the same line.

On Tuesday 2nd November, lawyers with Leigh Day & Co. filed a judicial review application of the Government’s refusal to lift a hand to prevent British complicity in a series of American executions. The British government finally announced an export restriction on Monday 29th November.

Yesterday the California authorities stated that they had imported the drugs from Archimedes Pharma and that the drugs are currently with the FDA in Washington DC:

State corrections officials today revealed how they obtained a scarce drug used in lethal injection executions, saying they received one small batch from Arizona officials and ordered another, larger batch from a British manufacturer.

California corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the first batch of 12 grams of sodium thiopental came from Arizona on Sept. 30 and that California was not charged for it.

The second batch of 521 grams was ordered from Archimedes Pharma, a British company, and corrections officials paid $36,415 for it, she said. The shipment was approved by U.S. Customs officials and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thornton said, and is now on hold on the East coast awaiting release by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We have followed all the proper procedures,” Thornton said.

The origin of the drugs is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which won a court order requiring corrections officails to reveal where they got the drugs by Tuesday.

The ACLU contends that it is illegal for corrections officials to use a foreign-produced drug in executions and the matter has become an international controversy. Britain last week tightened rules governing the export of the drug to the United States, a move that came after California made its purchase.

See Sam Stanton, California got execution drugs from Arizona, British sources, Sacramento Bee (Dec. 6, 2010), at (accessed Dec. 7, 2010).

Sodium thiopental is one of cocktail of three drugs prescribed for use in lethal injections by US states which retain the death penalty. Sodium thiopental is supposed to anaesthetise the victim before pancuronium bromide is used to paralyse the victim and finally potassium chloride is used to induce a heart attack. Sodium thiopental is bona fide anaesthetic and is included in the WHO list of essential medicines. However, it is old and has largely been superseded by more modern and efficacious drugs in western countries. Its use in the United States, other than for lethal injections, is confined to a few residual specialist areas. The only producer of the drug in the United States, Hospira, had ceased production due to a shortage of raw ingredients.

The FDA takes the position that the importation of Sodium Thiopental is illegal: On October 22, FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess told The Arizona Republic that there is no FDA-approved source for the importation of Sodium Thiopental. Burgess said that the FDA has control over its manufacture and distribution in the U.S. ” FDA is not aware of any firm currently able to supply thiopental to the U.S.,” she said. “A company would need to submit an application to FDA in order to be considered for approval including approval for overseas manufacturers of a drug for U.S. markets.” See Arizona Republic (October 22, 2010

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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