Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Grant Whittington headshot

Big Pharma Pushes Back on Arkansas Executions


Big pharma companies let out a collective sigh of relief earlier this week when two federal judges blocked Arkansas from carrying out an unprecedented string of eight executions over an 11-day period. The companies, pressuring Arkansas to return the medications to be used in the lethal injections, recognize the public-relations implications of using their drugs on death row.

McKesson, a massive drug distributor, said the state had obtained the lethal drugs improperly. The company said Arkansas promised to give the drug back to McKesson but then refused to return it. Arkansas officials, however, wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court, “McKesson willingly sold a drug to the [Arkansas Department of Corrections] and then experienced seller’s remorse.”

The state acquired midazolam, one of the three drugs it intends to use on its series of executions, in 2015. But the drug is set to expire at the end of the month -- hence the hurry.

Midazolam isn’t clear from controversy. In 2014, it was the headlining drug responsible for Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett. The lethal injection drug also prolonged executions in Ohio, Arizona and Alabama, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to vote on the legality of the drug in executions. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled the drug did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Before the feds federal stay, Arkansas was on its way to carrying out its first execution in 12 years -- and then give seven encore executions, in an odd order that would buck the nationwide trend of decreasing death penalties. In 2016, the 20 executions in the United States represented the fewest in the country in 25 years. The peak of 98 executions in 1999 was met with tighter court restrictions.

The Washington Post reported that Arkansas officials support their decision to squeeze eight executions into a tight schedule, saying delaying the deaths would deny justice for the victims’ loved ones. That seems precarious coming from a state void of executions in the last dozen years. All eight of the men facing executions were sentenced by 2000 of committing capital murder. One of the eight executions was stayed after judge listened to the parole board’s suggestion of upholding the man’s life sentence.

In 2016, pharma giant Pfizer followed in the footsteps of 20 drug companies already adopting restrictions against using their products in lethal injections. Pfizer’s announcement paved the way for massive obstacles from states seeking drugs for executions.

“Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection,” Maya Foa of Reprieve told the New York Times last year. And the majority of the 32 states with capital punishment have “imposed secrecy around their drug sources,” wrote Erik Eckhold of the Times. 

“The secrecy is not designed to protect the manufacturers, it is designed to keep the manufacturers in the dark about misuse of their products,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the paper.

In Arkansas, where the drug companies' role in the potential executions is out for the public to see, they are lashing back and demanding the drugs to be returned. As the Washington Post reported, it’s not even clear how Arkansas got the drugs in the first place, or if they even have them at all. The state’s secrecy laws prohibit the companies from knowing how the drugs were obtained.

While the executions are on stay in Arkansas, the state said it will fight back from the ruling.

Image credit: ZaldyImg/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington