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Johnson & Johnson says its drug shouldn’t be used in executions

The interior of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (Eric Risberg/AP)

A division of Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, says that a medicine its scientists originally invented more than half a century ago should not be used to kill prisoners.

On Thursday at 6 p.m., the state of Florida is scheduled to use an anesthetic drug called etomidate, discovered by scientists at Janssen, a division of Johnson & Johnson, in the execution of Mark Asay. Asay was found guilty of two murders committed in 1987. The drug will be used as part of a three-drug cocktail that the state switched to in January, and it will be the first use of etomidate in an execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Janssen discovers and develops medical innovations to save and enhance lives. We do not support the use of our medicines for indications that have not been approved by regulatory authorities,” Greg Panico, a spokesman for Janssen said in an email. “We do not condone the use of our medicines in lethal injections for capital punishment.”

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The move is powerful, although largely symbolic: Johnson & Johnson has never sold the drug, etomidate, in the United States and divested the product in the rest of the world last year. Etomidate is off-patent and made by multiple generic manufacturers.

The Florida Department of Corrections did not reveal which company is supplying the drug, and such information is traditionally kept secret.

“The Florida Department of Corrections follows the law and carries out the sentence of the court, as laid out in Florida Statute. This is the Department’s most solemn duty and the foremost objective with the lethal injection procedure is a humane and dignified process,” Michelle Glady, communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections said in an email.

But Johnson & Johnson's move adds to a growing chorus from the pharmaceutical industry forcefully opposing the use of its products in lethal injection. Over the past few years, some of the largest drug companies in the world have said they do not condone the use of their products in capital punishment and have outlined policies intended to prevent states from obtaining drugs for this use.

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“The American pharmaceutical industry is united in its view that it doesn’t want its medicines misused for nonmedical purposes — and killing prisoners has never been an approved medical purpose,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that has not taken a position for or against the death penalty but has been critical of the way it is administered.

The opposition has helped create shortages of lethal injection drugs that have led states to scramble to obtain the drug cocktails they need and pursue alternative methods and suppliers. In January, Florida switched from a lethal injection protocol that relied on a drug called midazolam to one that includes etomidate. Several makers of midazolam had previously said they do not sell their products for use in executions, and Pfizer implemented a strict distribution restriction policy to ensure its version of the drug was not used in lethal injection.

“Because of secrecy laws, secrecy practices, the public simply doesn’t know why states are doing what they’re doing,” Dunham said.

Reprieve, a London-based human rights organization, said the execution should be stopped. Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office did not immediately respond to a request for a reaction to Johnson & Johnson's statement.

“In Florida particularly, Governor Scott should listen to clear and unequivocal statements from Johnson & Johnson and others calling time on this dangerous misuse of medicines, and stay the execution of Mark Asay on Thursday,” Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said in a statement.

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