Britain to block export of new execution drug to US

July 11, 2012

Image of drugs

The UK Government has this week decided to impose strict export controls on the anaesthetic propofol, following the revelation that American prisons planned to use the medicine to execute prisoners.

In a further blow to US death penalty states already struggling with shortages of lethal drugs, Business Secretary Vince Cable wrote to Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith: “I have decided that I will impose a national control Order on the export of propofol to the United States.”

In May, the state of Missouri became the first to announce its intention to use propofol to kill prisoners. The state had previously used the barbiturate sodium thiopental, in conjunction with two other drugs, until action by domestic manufacturers and European export controls blocked its supply to US executioners. Some states then moved to a secondary barbiturate, pentobarbital, but the drug’s Danish manufacturer Lundbeck responded by imposing strict distribution controls. Missouri was then forced to resort to propofol, a new category of drug which has never been used in capital punishment.

The British Business Secretary’s decision to control UK-US exports of propofol will now prevent Missouri, and all US execution chambers, from sourcing this experimental execution drug from Britain. Reprieve welcomes the move, and is urging the European Commission to follow suit (as it did in 2011 when the UK moved to control exports of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital) with an amendment to a European Regulation to protect other European manufacturers from unwittingly facilitating US executions.

The Business Secretary’s letter states: “I have instructed my officials in the Export Control Organisation to start work on the necessary licensing arrangements. Our policy in this case will be to put a process in place to expedite any requests to export propofol to legitimate end-users, but to refuse licenses for direct exports to correctional authorities in the United States, and also in cases where we assess that there is a clear risk of diversion to correctional authorities.”

Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said: “This is a welcome and timely move by the British government, reflecting their longstanding ethical opposition to capital punishment. The new export control will go a long way to protecting the British pharmaceutical industry from unwitting complicity in executions in the USA, but more action will have to be taken at a European level to fully shut off the supply of execution drugs from Europe to US death chambers. Manufacturers themselves will have to remain especially vigilant, restricting the distribution of their medicines in the US lest they end up inadvertently fuelling the machinery of death.”


1. For further information, please contact Katherine O’Shea in Reprieve’s press office: / +44 (0) 7931592674

2. The Business Secretary’s letter to Reprieve is available on request. Further information on Missouri’s new execution protocol – including the original text – can be found here:

3. Propofol is on the FDA’s list of current drug shortages:

4. Further information on the executions Missouri is scheduling can be found here:

5. Reprieve recently issued a new film urging corporations to sign the ‘Pharmaceutical Hippocratic Oath’ and prevent their drugs being used to kill:

6. 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 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, 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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