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Death Penalty: Europe Restricts Export Of Drug Used In American Lethal Injections

Exclusive: Pushed by human rights groups, the European Union is set to ban the sale to the United States of one of the main active substances needed for lethal injections. Sodium thiopental is already in short supply, and executions are now set to be furt

Lethal injection room in California's San Quentin State Prison
Lethal injection room in California's San Quentin State Prison
Guido Bohsem

BERLIN - The European Union is set to restrict the sale to the United States of one of the main active substances needed for lethal injections. According to information obtained by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the export of sodium thiopental will only be possible by special permission, beginning Friday, posing a major problem for the US justice system.

The Official Journal of the European Union (OJ) is to publish a new, uniform set of authorized export regulations, valid for all short or intermediate-acting barbituric acids. One of them is the easy-to-use and fast-working anesthetic sodium thiopental, which is used to execute criminals in the states of Ohio and Washington. In 33 other states, sodium thiopental is a key ingredient in other toxic cocktails used to kill inmates.

Approximately 100 people are executed by American authorities every year. But in the past few months, supplies of the drug have become scarce. The only manufacturer based in the US, Hospira, is unwilling to continue to make its product available for lethal injections, and under American law it is not allowed to simply change the injection "recipe." To do that, a complicated approval procedure is required. So authorities -- who have been postponing executions as a result of the difficulty in finding supplies -- have been seeking other sources such as those in the EU.

Anti-death penalty and other human rights groups have pushed for the EU decision to now require special permission to export to countries outside of Europe. The most prominent supporter of the move is Germany's Minister of Economy and head of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Philipp Rösler. In an earlier role as Minister of Health he had written to German manufacturers of sodium thiopental to encourage them not to sell the drug to the US.

After changing jobs, he introduced to the Commission a bill to create a regulation valid Europe-wide that would effectively prevent the export of thiopental to the US. Initially, the proposal met with resistance from other states, but it has now been approved by the majority of the 27 member states.

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