UPDATED: Fresenius punished distributor for selling its drug for executions

German drugmaker Fresenius Kabi punished a U.S. wholesaler this year after it mistakenly sold its anesthetic propofol to the state of Missouri, which intended to use it for executions. Missouri has agreed to return the drug after the Louisiana-based firm pleaded to authorities.

The German drugmaker has confirmed that it withheld shipment of the drug to Morris & Dickson from November through mid-March after learning it sold a carton of 20 vials to Missouri, which was going to use it in place of other execution drugs, according to Reuters. According to emails posted by the ACLU and reported by Reuters, a salesperson spent a day at the Missouri prison in Bonne Terre asking officials to give the drug back. The firm said that it would be a big problem for patients if Fresenius pulled the drug from the market. One email reads: "Please - Please - Please HELP ...this system failure - a mistake - 1 carton of 20 vials - is going to affect thousands of Americans."

Geoffrey Fenton, a U.S. spokesman for the firm, said the company shipped the drug directly to the company's hospital clients, avoiding any shortages. 

Fresenius last year made wholesalers sign contracts agreeing they wouldn't sell the drug to states for executions. The death penalty is not practiced in Europe, and Germany has a law prohibiting the export of drugs for executions. Fresenius was under pressure not to sell the drug in the U.S. but fended off those pleas, saying that it was a useful medication with legitimate uses. The company said the drug was used in surgery in the U.S. 50 million times last year.

States with the death penalty have been finding it harder to get their hands on drugs for execution cocktails because of the roadblocks that manufacturers have erected to keep their products from being used that way. Issues started to arise a couple of years ago when Hospira quit manufacturing sodium thiopental, a commonly used drug in the mix. Some states then turned to pentobarbital, but steps by Danish drugmaker Lundbeck to keep U.S. states from that drug has prison officials scrambling again.

Ohio has acknowledged its supply of pentobarbital will expire before its next execution in November.Texas also had said its supply of pentobarbital had expired but this week executed a prisoner using version of the drug it got from a compounding pharmacy. Reuters said that Missouri would have been the first state to use propofol in an execution. Prison officials didn't comment about who decided to return the drug.

- read the Reuters story

Editor's Note: The story was updated to include a comment from Fresenius spokesman.