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These Drugs Could Save Lives, But Are Being Stockpiled to Kill People Instead

It’s a cruel conundrum: States that could use drugs to save lives are instead using them to kill. In the U.S., 31 states carry out capital punishment, and a recent study has found states that use lethal injections to kill inmates are stockpiling drugs that could be used for tens of thousands of life-saving surgeries.

These Drugs Sit In Prisons When They Could Be Used For Saving Lives

The study investigated four of the 31 states that still carry out capital punishment — Arkansas, Mississippi, Arizona and Virginia. It found that these states were stockpiling enormous stashes of medications used for executions that could instead be used to treat 11,257 patients via surgeries or other life-saving procedures.

If the findings of these four states were extrapolated to the rest of the U.S., the number of life-saving operations that the drugs could support surges into the tens of thousands, The Guardian reports. 

And in some cases, hospitals are having a tough time accessing many of these drugs because they are in short supply. This is forcing doctors to make other care choices, and this problem is being intensified by the fact that the drugs are being used for death chambers.

“The public must realize that when states take these vital drugs and repurpose them as poison and use them to kill, there are serious consequences,” Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University, in Georgia, told The Guardian. “People don’t appreciate that these drugs might be one day needed for their own medical treatment.”

Zivot is one of the researchers involved in the study.

In Arkansas, one of the states involved in the study, Republican governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight inmates to be executed this month. This was such a rapid-fire succession that some people began calling it the “conveyor-belt of death.” Fortunately, state and local courts have imposed stays in three of the executions, but the state still intends to kill five inmates in a week.

And to put these five men to death, the study reports that Arkansas has stockpiled sufficient amounts of the three drugs that would otherwise treat 1800 patients through life-saving procedures.

On Thursday, the conveyor-belt of death begins, with the execution of Ledell Lee who is tentatively scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. A stay was originally placed on his execution, but that stay has been lifted. Like Lee, Stacey Johnson had a temporary hold on his case, but was slated to be executed shortly after him on Thursday. But the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution, having decided that he should have the chance to prove his innocence with DNA testing.

Attorneys deployed by the Arkansas Attorney General’s office and public defenders have been fighting over the fates of the five death row inmates and additional legal problems remain, meaning this may very well wind up on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court later Thursday. The case of Don Davis, who was scheduled to be executed, also wound up there, but the Court placed his execution on hold.

Related: Death To The Death Penalty? Pfizer Blocks Use Of Its Drugs For Executions (VIDEO)

Arkansas utilizes three drugs for lethal injections: Midazolam, a sedative that is supposed to induce unconsciousness, vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles and potassium chloride, which is supposed to stop the heart.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers each of these drugs as crucial for meeting the minimal needs of healthcare systems.

“It is deeply perverse that departments of corrections across the U.S. are sitting on shortage medicines that could be used to save hundreds of patients’ lives.” said Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, a human rights organization.

But it’s not just that.

“As if this hoarding wasn’t dangerous enough, Arkansas has further undermined public health by introducing an ‘execution secrecy’ law which creates serious risks of drug diversion, counterfeiting and contamination,” she said.

Virginia, one of the other four states in the study, has hoarded enormous amounts of lethal injection drugs — enough, in fact, to treat nearly 5,000 people in critical need of operations. And next week, the state is scheduled to execute Ivan Teleguz, whose lawyers he is innocent.

Some drug manufacturers are pushing back. McKesson, a giant in the U.S. healthcare industry, is suing Arkansas in an effort to prevent the state from using vials of vecuronium that it provided to the Department of Corrections. McKesson is one of the largest distributors of medicines within the country. In it’s complaint, the company alleges state officials lied in order to receive the batches, pretending the drugs were to be used to restock the prison’s hospital wing.

A judge in Arkansas has granted McKesson’s request that the executions be temporarily halted, but the state’s Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said she plans to appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court.

“McKesson has shown that the healthcare industry will do what it takes to prevent the grave misuse of medicines in executions,” Foa said. “Arkansas obtained these drugs from McKesson through a sustained campaign of deception. In its efforts to ‘enforce the law’ Arkansas has ridden roughshod over private companies’ legal agreements and the interests of Arkansas patients, and today’s ruling shows that this will not pass unchallenged.”

Lee, 51, was placed on death row following the murder of Debra Reese, 26, in her own home. He allegedly broke into the house, strangled her and beat her with a tire iron.

Photo of doctor and child by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images/Photo of gurney by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

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Megan was born and raised in Ventura, California. She has since lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Mexico, and Costa Rica. While she has always been a liberal, her travels have informed her politics. She has worked for more than 25 years as a professional journalist writing about crime, the police, local politics, feature stories, environmental issues and a variety of other topics. She now writes for Reverb Press.Megan supports Black Lives Matter and fights against racism, sexism, the corporatocracy, climate change deniers and others who continue to destroy the planet.