No one will sell sodium thiopental to American executioners

American states are unable to execute their prisoners by lethal injection, thanks to an end to US production of sodium thiopental. Foreign health authorities prohibit selling sodium thiopental if it is to be used in lethal injections, and they will not buy drugs from pharma companies who sell sodium thiopental for that purpose. As a result, the sole US manufacturer, Hospira, has discontinued production of the drug, and no foreign manufacturer will sell to the US. Executions in California and Oklahoma have been delayed as a result of the shortage.
Now the US manufacturer, Hospira, says that it will stop production entirely after a bid to start making sodium thiopental in Italy stalled when the Rome government said it would only license manufacture if the drug was not used in executions.

Hospira said it intended to manufacture sodium thiopental to serve hospitals but "could not prevent the drug from being diverted to departments of corrections for use in capital punishment procedures".

"We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment," the company said.

Lethal injection drug production ends in the US

(Image: Lethal Injection Chamber, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from blatantnews's photostream)


  1. Is the executioner called ‘department of corrections officer’ nowadays? George Orwell would like that.

    1. Well it isn’t that orwellian… the person who does the killing is an officer in the department of corrections, which is the department that runs all aspects of federal civilian incarceration.

      1. even the word “executioner” is a a euphemism. orwell’s view would’ve argued your phrase diffuses the subject even further.

  2. Oklahoma’s statutes and procedures do not specify the use of sodium thiopental, and have used pentobarbital when stocks of sodium thiopental have run out. While commonly called an animal euthanisia drug, pentobarbital is used in some instances in physician-assisted suicide.

  3. I always figured that if I were to get executed, I’d prefer being guillioutined. It’s virtually foolproof and totally instant. None of this “well, maybe the person being executed is aware when he’s sedated” nonsense that there is with lethal injection. No painful death like with the electric chair. No risk of failure like with hanging or shooting squad, slowly choking or bleeding to death.

    Just pull the blade up, let it fall, and it’s over. The most “humane” method of execution.

    (to be clear, I think the death penalty is an abomination. But if you were to do it…)

    1. Just pull the blade up, let it fall, and it’s over.

      But doesn’t the brain live on for as much as ten seconds after being separated from the body? [shudder]

      I think it would be far more humane to have the condemned person put on a black hood, then aim a large laser at their head. Flip the switch and the head explodes instantly. No brain, no pain, as it were. Gruesome yes, but it guarantees instantaneous oblivion.

      1. But doesn’t the brain live on for as much as ten seconds after being separated from the body?

        Almost definitely not. There’s a massive drop in blood pressure to the brain when one’s head is severed, as you might imagine. You’d be unconscious immediately.

        (The Lavoisier “I asked them to blink for as long as the could and they did for ten seconds” story is apocryphal)

      2. @JonStewartMill

        If you’re volunteering to test the “10 seconds of consciousness” idea then I have an MRI machine with your name ALLL over it ;)
        But seriously, even if there are 10 seconds of consciousness it must be considered likely that the nerve connection problem (you know, what with the head having been separated from the body) would be firing in an uncontrolled pattern, resulting in pretty much complete chaos in the brain. It shouldn’t be much like normal consciousness, more like all nerves and sensors in your body firing simultaneously, but random firings. Just a “white noise” of input/output activity. As a lot of the sense of “self” seems to be tied into those systems it is likely that the rest of the brain would just be doing random crap as well. You MIGHT get just a random jumble of memories and sensations just cascading through your mind, and would fairly probably be unable to distinguish any of that from the real stuff you’re seeing or hearing. Vision would probably go within one or two seconds, hearing right after that.

      3. If you really want to get into “the best ways to die”, anything that puts you unconscious before the event is probably good enough.

        There’s no shortage of drugs that can be used to do this, and I’ve never really understood why sodium thiopental was chosen as the “one true way”. All I can figure is it’s to save the stomachs of the observers. Paralysis is a whole bunch easier to watch than flailing limbs, which is a real possibility with other drugs.

        But to the person in the process of dying, it makes no difference. Ask any diabetic who’s gone through hypoglycemia.. it looks pretty uncomfortable to an observer, but when the diabetic wakes up, has no memory of what happened.

        1. “But to the person in the process of dying, it makes no difference. Ask any diabetic who’s gone through hypoglycemia.. it looks pretty uncomfortable to an observer, but when the diabetic wakes up, has no memory of what happened.”

          have you ever asked someone who’s been executed what it felt like?

          losing consciousness and being executed have relatively different outcomes.
          one you recover from – the other, not so much

          1. How is that a relevant question? Of course I have no idea what the executed person experiences. No one does.

            All we can verify is that losing consciousness results in no memory of what happened while unconscious. Based on the best available data, dying while unconscious seems like a pretty peaceful way to go.

          2. if you, or no one, has “no idea what the executed person experiences”, then how can you claim “to the person in the process of dying, it makes no difference.” or for that matter, how can you compare an execution to hypoglycemia?

            i don’t disagree that dying while unconscious is peaceful, but i’m saying that executions aren’t in anyone’s best interest

            kindly share the data you’re referring to; it would help to enliven the debate

    2. Surprisingly topical: A Canadian movie called “The Widow of St. Pierre”

      St. Pierre: Island territory of France (even today!) nestled in the Canadian maritimes

      Widow: nickname for guillioutine

      It’s a dark comedy / historical drama / chick flick about suddenly needing one and trying to import it from France!

    3. When the guillotine was used in France, the executions occured at dawn. The condemned would not know until just before dawn if that was their last day of their lives. Sounds quick and easy to me.

    4. Well actually, it won’t be that painless because you’re talking about separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. That will cause pain. And, the brain might live for 13-20 seconds. If immediate unconsciousness didn’t occur, that would be really terrifying. Better think of a different way to go.

  4. Apparently California already has enough for 85 executions, sourced from a London supplier called Dream Pharma, apparently based at a west London driving school called, ironically enough, ELGONE DRIVING ACADEMY*. These were supplied before a UK ban went through in December.

    Maybe the groanworthy “el gone” pun doesn’t work elsewhere, but in the UK learner drivers have to drive around under instruction in cars with a big red L-for-Learner logo visible from front and back. “L” Gone Driving Academy, geddit?

    1. It’s a good story, but not a correct one

      Just two completely different companies in the same building.
      The driving school was not selling pharmaceuticals, nor was the drug company offering driving lessons.

  5. Well they could turn the lethal injection chamer back into the gas chamber that it obviously once was.

  6. “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

      1. I like leaving that one unattributed. Funner that way. Where’d that come from? The Bible? Nope, LOTR.

  7. The insane thing about this article is that Italy’s laws are so screwed up that a company is responsible for how some customer uses their product.

    After a company sells a product and states “this is how you should use it” then their liability should end (unless something happens that is covered in their warranty). To force a company to police their customers to ensure they use the product in the intended manner at all times is some of the dumbest legislation I have ever heard.

    1. Since the law is made to regulate the use and misuse of a product, especially anything that is part of system designed to harm or kill human beings, like weapons, and capital punishment is illegal in europe, i think it would be pretty screwed up and hypocrit if the contrary was true.
      As an italian citizen i agree with the message it sends, for once i’m happy that my country isn’t participating or making it easy in the execution (or abduction and torture) of another person.

    2. But it’s in the product guidelines of use “Not for use in executions.”

      A guy walks into your gun shop needing bullets, you just saw him execute people for a couple 100 years.

      I think we can make a case that the gun shop owner had a moral and legal duty not to sell it to Mr. Gunman even if he claims that he just wants the ammunition to shoot cans out at the range.

      1. The gun shop owner should report illegal activity when they see it, so he/she should be calling the cops after seeing their customer execute people. But if some guy off the street comes in to buy bullets and has whatever license if needed to buy bullets, then after I sell the bullets to him, I should not be held liable.

        Or in another scenario: in the movie “Fargo,” I heard that someone met their demise while inside a wood chipper. Should the victim’s family sue the wood chipper manufacturer because the owner of said wood chipper misused the product? I think not (and I did not see the movie “Fargo” so I might have the details of who owns what wrong, but my point is still valid).

        1. UrbanSpacman42, you shouldn’t take Hospira’s PR fluff at face value.

          The law passed states that for “the drug to be sold it must be stated that the use of the product is allowed only in hospitals and in the contract of sale must be clearly specified that Hospira cannot allow the distribution of the product for the practice of lethal injection”.

          This is unlikely to have been a surprise to Hospira, as they agreed to it in a meeting with the Italian Health Minister before the legislation was put to parliament.

        2. The illegal activity has been reported for decades and condemned by all other “First” world nations.

          Gun store owner’s next move if he’s to be consistent is to not sell the ammunition to Mr. Gunman.

          And the other gun store owners have confederated together to starve Mr. Gunman which makes me quite cheerful this morning.

        3. I heard that someone met their demise while inside a wood chipper. Should the victim’s family sue the wood chipper manufacturer because the owner of said wood chipper misused the product?

          That’s a poor comparison for two reasons. First, the families of those being executed aren’t suing anybody. Second, there was no ambiguity here about how the product was to be used by the customer so it’s more like someone walking into your hardware store and saying “I need a woodchipper to dispose of a body. Can I buy that one?”

          A better analogy would be the U.S. government penalizing any domestic company that knowingly sold power tools to a foreign dictator’s interrogators for the explicit purpose of committing torture.

    3. I agree with you for things like hand towels and pocketknives, but these are medical chemicals. Potent, dangerous, synthetic drugs.

      Creating them without feeling responsible for their use in accordance with law would be socipoathic.

  8. It seems America’s culture of relentless barbarism is turning it into a pariah. This and the Bradley Manning visitors story are just today’s examples.

  9. while I do support the death penalty in some cases, the US justice system is so twisted that I mostly support anything that interferes with it.
    It seems that the primary requirement for state execution is to leave the face looking nice and painless or humane is secondary.

  10. One can only hope that others outside the US put pressure on us to reform not just the death penalty. It seems clear we can’t reform ourselves.

  11. Win. Yes, the government will find another way to get rid of the undesireables. Be it capital punishment, ruthless war or abortion, we humans really are a sick lot.

    And with all of the money the government throws around to provide the means to kill people – are you telling me they can’t build a lab to produce sodium thiopental? The whole thing is screwed up.

  12. …So on the whole I agree with Oskar. I don’t want to be executed, but guillotine seems the least bad of the options. The drug cocktail used in the US seems to be one of the most awful execution methods I can imagine. It ranks right up there with third world methods like stoning and electric chairs.

  13. I always wonder why helium is not used. Painless, effective, no discomfort as such. Add a bit of laughing gas, and you go out on a high.

    I guess though that the memories of Auschwitz and Birkenau are too fresh for gassing to go down well with the public. It would be uber-ironic though if there was an outcry about gassing, given that there is no outcry in the US about wanton murder by the “correctional services”, as well as all the other US human rights abuses of recent years. The North Koreas, Chinas and Irans look like bumbling amateurs in comparison.

  14. Additional irony for pro-death penalty free marketeers… letting the market decide FTW. [Kinda, but still funny.]

  15. A while ago my wife and I watched an episode of BBC Horizon that explored that very subject; how to humanely kill someone. The method they settled on was to drown the person in nitrogen. Painless, effective, and even slightly euphoric. If I recall correctly, when they suggested this method, (to whom I don’t recall) it was rejected due to the lack of cruelty.

        1. thanks,

          for the record; as the relative of someone who was wrongfully executed and the friend of another person who was wrongfully convicted of murder i am anti capital-punishment

          1. Your family and friends seem to be having a hard time. (I am not making a joke.)

            The state execution of individuals who have committed (or often, not) acts against the community — this therefore includes kidnapping, treason, and murder — is an offence against every individual within that state as it makes them an involuntary participant in killing another human being.

            Given the prosecution record of many states, and the rate of now acknowledged error, it seems appalling to me that any civilized human being, especially someone who calls himself a Christian, would condone capital punishment.

            “An eye for an eye, a tooth …” comes from the Old Testament and is a pretty primitive method of problem solving. I am amazed (and appalled) that people still think it justified.

          2. my family has the small satisfaction that knowing that particular wrongful execution (which happened 50 years ago) was referenced in the debate that led to the abolishment of capital punishment in Canada.

            my friend still lives with the stigma of a wrongful murder conviction but if he had lived in a country that still executed it’s convicts then he too may have taken his innocence to his grave

            i also have empathy for relatives of the murder victims who don’t know who to blame for their loss.

            justice systems are imperfect so they should not have irreversible sentences

  16. Think the U.S. execution system isn’t completely messed up? Then you should really, really see Errol Morris’s movie about the guy who for many years serviced the death chambers in many different states. @Netflix. Wikipedia.

  17. The state has no right to murder. Either for vengeance or to pursue economic interests. If it is illegal to intentionally kill another human, then a double standard should not be applied.

  18. Problem: thiopental is a valuable anesthetic drug. Unlike propofol, it causes no pain on intravenous injection, which makes it valuable in pediatric anesthesia.
    Leaving the abhorrence of capital punishment aside, any anesthetic drug can replace thiopental: ketamine, propofol, etomidate.
    @#28: nitrogen drowning will induce dyspnea and severe fear due to hypoxia. No thanks.

    1. As the wikipedia article on N asphyxiation says, buildup of CO2 is what causes the panic/anxiety in asphyxiation. Lack of O2 per se causes nothing but loss of cognitive ability, coma, death.

  19. For everyone positing that the guillotine is the least worst option in execution I’d tell you to double check your history. Sure the concept works, beheading with much of the human error eliminated. That was the whole idea from the start. But in practice it turned out to be just about the most gruesome method imaginable. Dull blades, difficulties (and negligence) in maintenance, and differences in design (straight blade vs angled) all made the guillotine a legendarily brutal device. So yeah sure if you redesign the thing, build it as high quality as possible, and maintain it carefully things might work out well most of the time.

    Meanwhile firing squads are pretty fool proof, and I for one would feel kinda bad ass going out that way.

  20. BTW, it’s an interesting human tendency to spend time like this, trying to improve something even if we find the thing to be an unacceptable practice.

  21. Nitrogen asphyxiation is by far the most humane method, but the authorities don’t want to touch it because it’s easy to perpetrate “perfect crime” murders without any forensic evidence with it. If it ever became part of popular culture we’d have a rash of nitrogen-cylinder-hose-under-door room flooding murders that the coroners wouldn’t be able to confirm.

    1. According to what i can find by a quick poking around online, it seems like there’s a number of gases that might do the trick. Good thing most murderers are of the intoxicated/angry/otherwise -not-thinking-clearly persuasion and not chemists!

  22. So nice that much of the western world is still trying to show the United States the way out of the Dark Ages.

  23. Having seen and experienced how fast a person can pass out in a simple vasovagal faint, the answer is clear.

    Low blood pressure results in a “faint”, a temporary loss of consciousness that lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes.

    Consequences include: horizontal posture to increase blood flow, and facial injury.

    So an effective guillioutine (one that actually seperates the head from the body quickly) should be “ouch, nothing” quite quickly (in less than a few seconds)

    Nevertheless I’ve never understood the argument of quick and humane execution. If the crime is so heinous to require execution, why shouldn’t the perpetrator suffer? Alternatively, if execution is cruel, why kill in the name of justice?

    If I wanted to punish someone, they would need to live in agony. In a bizarre way, the death penalty is the kindest revenge ever.

    1. In response to the off-spoken, Christian canard (cited above) that the “Old Testament” calls for disproportionate violence AKA “an eye for an eye,” readers should PLEASE read the *entire* sentence in Hebrew Scriptures *in context* — both grammatically and historically. It is the heart of one of the most important commandments God gave the Israelites — to set up an entire system of *proportionate justice.* The actual sentence commands that no God-fearing people should demand anything *more* for a crime than a corresponding punishment up to and equal to the loss of the victim. It says “NO MORE than an eye for an eye,” in other words, if someone intentionally blinds you, you can’t legally kill him for it, or demand he be exiled, or pursuit vengeance against his entire family because of it. You can demand he pay you an amount of money equal to what the courts decide an eye is worth, but you can’t expect more than this; kind of like you’d get in a modern court, in a modern democracy in the 21st Century in a willful neglegence case, only way, way, way back in the day. The willful misrepresentation of this and other passages of the “Old Testament” by the Catholic and Protestant Churches in an effort to “anti-Judaicise” (their term too) has resulted in millions of murdered Jews over the centuries. If you are educated enough to be reading this website, you should hopefully understand why correcting this misperception is so important.

      Whether contemporary states should be executing anyone for capital crimes should be a discussion based upon contemporary morality, but not on historic antisemitic claims.

  24. If we can’t do humane, what about ‘ridiculously absurd?’

    Dropped out of an airplane while inside a flaming 1964 Chevy and sitting next to two rabid gorillas?

    Probably wouldn’t cost as much, and it’s *definitely* morally abhorrent. Win-Win!

  25. How about calling IG Farben? I’m sure between making Zyklon B they could make some sodium thiopental to satisfy the American public’s need for human sacrifices. We need a constant flow of fresh victims to feed our need for scape goats and revenge.

  26. This is what you get for letting your industries, in this case the pharmaceutical one, hollow out through the use of off-shore manufacturing facilities. Pretty soon you won’t even be able to exercise your Second Amendment rights because China will stop selling you guns.

  27. An idealist in me likes the fact that there is something that is hard to buy just because it can be used for unethical purposes.

    An engineer in me does not understand what’s so difficult in killing someone “humanely” when world is full of substances that will render anyone “peacefully” unconscious in seconds and dead in minutes. It seems plain stupid to inject someone with stuff that can fail painfully.

  28. In principal I’m against the Death Penalty…

    First, the “Rich Elite” do not fear it, though they do by far more damage to society.

    Second, it’s somehow found a way to be even stupider and crueler than “The bloody heel of authority” it was before. Now it’s just “Justice by Points” against the poor who maybe killed someone. The persecutors aka District Attorneys who bring charges do it for “Points” and don’t care a whit except to get a conviction.

    Third, it doesn’t stop the next murder by a second. And it costs more to keep someone alive in prison for life than to kill them and woe to us when some RightTard uses the next Charlie Manson to push through some way around the “Appeals” process…

    Fourth, and far from last, there is a being that in one of the texts attributed to him said that man is not to kill. Now, I dislike those who claim to be his eyes and ears and religion in general, but I do after a life of denying believe in that being. Killing in self-defense might be one thing, but killing a helpless person if there’s a way to get around it (fill prison space) is murder. Modern society is no “Frontier” where perhaps you actually can’t afford to feed a prisoner for life in a cage.

    And, if I start my own society, (sea stead, re-claiming after supervolcano/epidemic) I might well include capital punishment. Like I said, a frontier couldn’t afford life in prison or managed slavery. But I’d make NO pretense it wasn’t murder. Decapitation with a sword. Dangling a person in the water so sharks and other fishes rip them apart for days. And I’d make sure there was a process where “The Rich” could indeed be executed if their financial manipulation hurt society, chiefly that their lawyer would face death with them if his defense failed.

  29. A .45 slug in the back of the head is also effective. It’s thousands cheaper than injections, and hundreds of thousands cheaper than life without parole.

    Since no one ever complains about it hurting, it’s probably painless, too. Over before it begins.

  30. All this talk about method and its the act that really is abominable.

    If I were gonna execute someone… I’d stop and reconsider, and see theres no point in that exercise of barbarism.

  31. While we’re on this slightly morbid drift off-topic, I’ve always said that I’d like to die in my bed. With Miss Brazil 2050.

    Amusingly, there’s even a catchy term for it in Japanese: “fukujoushi” (腹上死) è…¹ means “stomach”,上 means “on top of” and æ­» means “death”, so it literally means “to die on someone’s stomach.” I can’t believe mid-coital coronaries happen enough to warrant their own slang phrase but hey, let’s not let usefulness get in the way of the distribution of random trivia…

  32. I’m sure the great USA will find a way to continue with state sponsored murder innbo time at all!

  33. Thiopental is valuable for anaesthesia, and particularly for deep sedation after bad head injuries. There is a shortage, and this is a problem for us. We have not had it available during aneurysm surgery, and recently had to use something else with less ideal parameters in the ICU because we couldn’t get enough.

    1. I had wondered about why we couldn’t get Pentothal recently. I had been trained it’s the best agent for neural protection during deep hypothermic circulatory arrest. We’ve been using propofol instead.

      On that note, I wonder if they’ll run into similar issues if they switch to a different agent for lethal injections. Italy manufactures a lot of propofol…

  34. The US is a disgrace to the civilized world for allowing capital punishment. For other things to, but this is such a glaring barbaric custom.

  35. There’s a contradiction within this article. It is stated that “[Foreign governments] will not buy drugs from pharma companies who sell sodium thiopental for [the purpose of lethal injection]” but the quote states they will not license the manufacture of such drugs.

    That quotation and other sources report that the Italian government wouldn’t license Hospira to run a plant in Italy that manufactured sodium thiopental unless Hospira could guarantee that the drug would not be used in lethal injection, a guarantee Hospira could not provide.

    Those are intensely different demands from the Italian government and is a fundamental misrepresentation of the Italian government’s stance on the issue.


  36. I made the previous comment, #80.

    It is essentially the difference of being a direct party to the production of lethal injection drugs (providing a license to manufacture) and taking forceful action to protest lethal injection by punishing those who are a party to it (refusing to buy from those companies that manufacture it).

    That’s a HUGE difference.

  37. The hell with the politics of the death penalty — my concern is with (potentially) actual *animals.* It was my understanding that the drugs used to kill people with lethal injection were the same ones that are used to humanely euthanize suffering pets. Having had to resort to this measure out of love for my beloved 18.5 year old cat last year, I wonder is this drug that no one will now manufacture because of its use for administration of the death penalty to human felons will eliminate a quick and painless death for cats and dogs. Is this in fact “that” drug or not? Serious, non-trolling question.

  38. I work in the defence industry and it is taken for granted that our Government and others with interests in our activities have absolute control over where and how and what for our products can be sold.

    But getting back to the argument about Nitrogen I suppose there are many factors which limit using it for a murder. Most rooms aren’t sealed enough to keep the nitrogen in. Nitrogen straight out of a container is very cold and might wake the victim up before they pass out. For a decent sized room you would need a lot of nitrogen and tracing it back to the source might not be so hard. There can’t be that many places which use the stuff.

  39. you would need a lot of nitrogen and tracing it back to the source might not be so hard. There can’t be that many places which use the stuff.

    Every chem lab in the world for starters… so, millions of places. It’s cheap and reasonably inert so it has thousands of uses.

    I can buy tanks of nitrogen for cash, no questions asked, at the gas tower where they fraction out argon for welders. I bet I could buy a thousand pounds of it from praxair while dressed in a zoot suit and a studded codpiece. And why not? It’s no more dangerous than a brick or a toilet, you can kill a dozen people easily by dropping a couple toilets off a roof. Nitrogen tanks last a long time, too – it’s not uncommon to get gas tanks with defaced swastikas on them, that were made in Germany in the early 40s and are still in use in the USA today. So good luck tracing a tank back to a cash purchaser.

    When you compress air to get the argon and oxygen out for sale, you get a lot of nitrogen. Air is over 75% nitrogen, so it’s cheap and readily available.

  40. I know no one’s mentioned it, but I find the fact there’s a pillow on the rig in the initial photo just beyond strangely perverse. A PILLOW.

  41. This is a non-story. In the medical field, sodium thiopental used to be a common induction agent for general anesthesia, but has been replaced with propofol. I am sure the government was trying to save money by using sodium thiopental. They will switch to new agent – no big deal. Sodium thiopental doesn’t kill people. It is used to induce general anesthesia so that the prisoner is not awake when their heart stops from the KCl or asphyxiation from pancuronium.

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