Can Big Pharma end the death penalty in the US?

Someone on death row might have an excellent innocence claim or an excellent police corruption claim, but what is saving their life is shortages or litigation over execution drugs.

A man walks into a pharmacy with an execution warrant and is given the drugs necessary for execution by lethal injection. This sounds like a very bad joke, but is in fact what is going on at the moment in Ohio. And here is why.

Thirty two states retain the death penalty in the US, but a new obstacle is making it increasingly difficult for them to carry it out. Pharmaceutical companies are taking a moral stand. The manufacturers of the drugs required by state departments of corrections for executions are saying they will not allow their products to be employed in this way. Manufacturers in the UK, US, Denmark, Israel, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and India have taken steps to prevent their drugs being used in executions.

This has had an astonishing effect. Shortages of lethal injection drugs and attendant litigation have resulted in moratoria - an official halting of executions - in Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, and Tennessee. Historically, state entities do not move directly from having the death penalty to abolition. They begin with a moratorium on killing and then, when the population has grown unused to executions, the death penalty can be abolished. Of the states mentioned above, Maryland abolished the death penalty this year and abolition bills have been put forward in Nebraska, Colorado and California. California came very close to passing its abolition bill - voting against by 52 to 48. Meanwhile, the media coverage of the issue has exposed the unsavoury details of the execution process and created opportunities for serious debate about abolition.

As the Executive Director of a legal action charity that handles a number of death penalty cases, I speak to colleagues in the US who say that their client has an excellent innocence claim or an excellent police corruption claim, but what is saving the client's life is drug shortages or litigation over execution drugs. Here, I think, is why this initiative is so beautifully effective. The pharma companies are maintaining an intellectually coherent position: they manufacture medicines which they sell to doctors and health practitioners. Their raison d'être is the saving of lives. They absolutely should take this stance on their product being used by the State to kill people, and they have.

Last week, the governor of Missouri, not a liberal at all when it comes to the death penalty, said: "As Governor, my interest is in making sure justice is served and public health is protected.  That is why, in light of the issues that have been raised surrounding the use of propofol in executions, I have directed the Department of Corrections that the execution of Allen Nicklasson, as set for October 23, will not proceed. I have further directed the Department to modify the State of Missouri's Execution Protocol to include a different form of lethal injection."

This means that executions in Missouri will be halted until an alternative method can be found - and each proposed alternative method will be litigated to see whether or not it meets humane requirements. In California, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court has publicly stated that she predicts it will be three or more years before the state is in a position to carry out any executions due to lethal injection issues. Granting Nathan Dunlap a reprieve in Colorado, state governor John Hickenlooper agreed with Justice Harry Blackmun that "the death penalty experiment has failed", concluding: "Recent restrictions imposed by pharmaceutical companies and the Food and Drug Administration make procuring these drugs challenging. We must ensure that individuals facing the death penalty are afforded certain guaranteed rights of due process before a state proceeds with an execution."

Texas and Ohio are also currently having trouble sourcing execution drug supplies. Their solution? Currently, they are turning to compounding pharmacies to get their drug supplies - effectively they are asking a local pharmacy to knock up some makeshift drugs so that the local prison can kill someone. This is clearly inappropriate, but if there were any doubt about that one has only to look at some of the results: one warden is asking that the prescriptions be filled in his name - and he will then use the drugs on his prisoners. Another is using as the authorising medical authority a local hospital which has been closed for 20 years. And, as per my opening shot, Ohio has stated that pharmacists can fill prescriptions based on an execution warrant. At least some compounding pharmacies have said that they don’t want anything to do with the death penalty - one Texan pharmacy refused to fill an order for compounded pentobarbital when it found out the drugs were for executions, and another requested that its drugs be returned when it found out the purpose for which the drugs had been ordered.

Is there, then, a danger that states will go back to more brutal methods of execution? To hanging, the gas chamber, the firing squad, or even the electric chair? First, any such suggestion would open excellent litigation challenge opportunities. And more interestingly, executing states have invested a lot of time and energy in persuading the world that death by lethal injection is humane. In the face of that, it would be difficult to introduce an obviously barbaric alternative - should we expect a return of that most efficient engine of destruction, the guillotine? Will the heads of murderers fall into a basket whose specification the Texas legislature will have to decide? Will basket-weavers have to require end-user licences if they dissent from the death penalty? I think that even the most bloodthirsty states might have a job getting that onto the books. (Just on the humane-ness of lethal injection - because I cannot let it pass unsaid - there are so many examples of botched executions and improperly administered drugs that the process is nowhere near humane much of the time, even if you believe - as I do not - that there is a priori any means of humane execution.)

The execution drug project began at the end of 2010, when it became apparent that a UK company, Dream Pharma (housed behind a driving school in Acton) was manufacturing and supplying execution drugs to death rows in the US. Now, in less than three years, the industry has taken significant, concrete, and effective action and poses the largest threat to execution within the US. It is not often that pharmaceutical companies are celebrated for their good deeds in the world, for straight up moral choices, but now is one of those times - please be upstanding, and raise your coffee in the general direction of Lundbeck, Fresenius Kabi, Hospira, Teva, Naari and many more. . . Thank you.

Clare Algar is executive director of the charity Reprieve, which has been working with pharmaceutical companies on strategies to prevent their medicines being supplied to execution chambers.

 

 

A prison in California, where executions have been halted because of drug shortages. Photo: Getty
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.