Hospira to stop producing execution drug

January 21, 2011

The sole US manufacturer of lethal injection drug sodium thiopental has announced that it is permanently halting production of the drug, potentially delaying executions across the USA.

In a statement released today, Hospira Inc. blames pressure from the Italian government for their withdrawal from the market. The decision follows months of controversy over European countries allowing the export of the drug for US executions despite their stated opposition to the death penalty.

Many US states have run short of sodium thiopental, the first in the three-drug lethal injection procedure, after a 2009 decision by Hospira to suspend production due to supply problems. Hospira had planned to resume producing the drug in early 2011 at a factory in Liscate, Italy. But in December, the Italian parliament issued an order binding the government to ensure that Hospira’s Italian-made thiopental would not be used for executions.

Reprieve applauds Hospira’s decision to exit the sodium thiopental market, but has urged them to monitor carefully the use of their other products. Hospira also manufactures pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride – the two other drugs in the lethal injection cocktail– and has been known to sell these drugs to prisons for use in executions. Reprieve asks that Hospira exit the lethal drug market altogether by refusing to allow their drugs to be sold to prisons where prisoners are executed, and urges other pharmaceutical manufacturing companies do the same.

Reprieve’s investigator Maya Foa said: 

“Reprieve has been asking Hospira Inc to ensure that its products are not used for killing. This decision will certainly help and is to be applauded, but a broader long-term solution is needed. Pharmaceutical companies and governments must impose responsible restrictions on their drugs to ensure that they are used to help rather than harm people. A Hippocratic oath for pharmaceutical companies is long overdue.”

For more information please contact O’Shea: katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk / 07931592674 or Clive Stafford Smith: cstaffordsmith@gmail.com / 07940-347125.

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 & Co contacted the Government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Mr Zagorski’s execution. On Monday 1st November 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 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.

On 6th December the California authorities stated that they had imported the drugs from Archimedes Pharma and that the drugs were 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 officials 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), athttp://www.sacbee.com/2010/12/06/3237693/california-corrections-got-execution.html (accessed Dec. 7, 2010).

While the list cost of the drugs imported by California should under no circumstances be more than $1,000, California has paid $36,415 for its supply – a blood money mark up of 3,500%.

Sodium thiopental is one of a 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 him, and finally potassium chloride is used to induce a heart attack. Sodium thiopental is a 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 22nd October, 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 US. “The 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), http://www.azcentral.com/community/pinal/articles/2010/10/21/20101021arizona-execution-court-blocks-2nd-request.html#ixzz13Nv3hvED.On 16th December, Reprieve brought to Vince Cable’s attention that Arizona had already sourced the other two execution drugs (pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride) from the UK, and was advising California on how to do the same. Reprieve asked for a ban on the export of these two drugs as well by 20th December. Cable’s office has provided no reply.

Background on Reprieve:

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.’

ReprievePO Box 52742London EC4P 4WSTel: 020 7353 4640Fax: 020 7353 4641Email: info@reprieve.org.ukWebsite: www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guarantee; Registered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England) Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YH; Patrons: Alan Bennett, Julie Christie, Martha Lane Fox, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner