The Danish company Lundbeck, the sole source for sodium pentobarbital in the U.S., is taking steps to discourage, if not prevent, states from using its drug for executions (H/T Ben Goldacre). Lundbeck manufactures the drug, known as Nembutal, as a treatment for epilepsy. It is also used as a veterinary anesthetic. It has not been tested for use in executions, where it either serves as an anesthetic to relieve pain for the drug that does the killing, or is used in sufficient doses to be lethal on its own.
Pentobarbital is increasing in popularity after a shortage, and then a production restriction, of sodium thiopental made that drug less practical for use in executions. Track my previous posts for a rough timeline of how lethal injection was threatened not by the courts, but by drug shortages.
Lundbeck needed encouragement to take the active steps it has recently announced. As related by Mr. Bonner in The Atlantic‘s website, death penalty opponent Reprieve, which has been involved in efforts to restrict the use of thiopental, made a point of publicizing every recent execution where Lundbeck’s Nembutal was used.
What, exactly, will the company be doing? Several states will be using pentobarbital over the next few weeks, and those executions are unlikely to stop because the drug manufacturer considers the drugs unsafe (due to the lack of testing). Lundbeck won’t be able to restrict those usages, in part because they didn’t sell the drug directly to the prisons. What it is doing involves changing the distributors it works with, adding end user clauses to its distribution arrangements to restrict resale for executions, and contacting prison authorities indicating use of Nembutal in untested ways is unsafe. The Danish government has already been contacting state governors asking them to refrain from using the drugs.
I don’t expect the appeals to work. I do think that eventually the supplies of phenobarbital in the U.S. will shrink to the point where states may resort to the same suspect sharing expeditions that attracted the attention of The Colbert Report last December. They will also seek alternate means to continue lethal injection. Whether they will find companies willing to supply these drugs seems increasingly unlikely. Will Texas start a phenobarbital production facility to handle its Death Row? Possibly, with the likelihood increasing if the current Texas governor opts not to run for President.