The state of Missouri's plan to execute a convicted killer could have wound up punishing millions of surgical patients at hospitals across the country as well.
The state of Missouri is returning a shipment of a powerful anesthetic it planned to use to carry out executions. The department of corrections said it has its own supply of the drug.
The state plans to use the drug to carry out the death sentence of condemned killer Allen Nicklasson in late October.
But Wednesday, Nicklasson's attorney asked the Missouri Supreme Court for a stay of execution because of the propofol issue.
Most adult patients about to go into surgery these days will have the drug propofol used to put them under.
"There is no such thing as an ideal drug, but really, propofol has approached that and, in so many ways, is our best version of an ideal drug," said Dr. Marty DeRuyter, an anesthesiologist.
DeRuyter counts on the drug every day at the University of Kansas Hospital because of its low side effects and quick patient recovery.
But now there's a serious risk that an international debate about the death penalty could cut off DeRuyter's and other doctors' access to propofol.
"You take that tool away from us, it sets us back 20 years and you're going to be fraught with all the problems that we had then," he said.
It started when a drug distributor accidentally sent a case of propofol to the state prison in Bonne Terre, MO, to be used to execute Allen Nicklasson. When the drug distributor realized the mistake, they asked for the drug back, but the department of corrections refused.
Nicklasson was convicted of killing businessman Richard Drummond of Excelsior Springs, MO, in 1994, when Drummond stopped to help Nicklasson and accomplices in their broken-down car.
Propofol is manufactured almost entirely in Europe. The European Union is strongly opposed to capital punishment and has threatened to stop exporting the drug to the U.S. if Missouri executes Nicklasson on Oct. 26, using the drugs delivered by accident.
That would leave physicians like DeRuyter looking for alternative ways to sedate patients as propofol was used in 50 million procedures in the U.S. last year alone.
"Patients may stay in the recovery room longer, they may have more episodes of nausea and vomiting, there may be more issues of blood pressure problems from some of these drugs. These are not desirable things that propofol has allowed us to avoid and has made anesthesia probably the safest it's been," the doctor said.
The drug distributor called its delivery of propofol to the prison a "system failure." Since the prison is refusing to return the drug, the manufacturer and various medical groups are pleading with Gov. Jay Nixon to step in. His office did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Missouri and Texas were the first states to express interest in using propofol during executions.
Missouri said they're planning to use the new drug in the lethal injection, which would make it the first time propofol has been used for an execution anywhere.
There's also an ongoing federal court challenge to using propofol in executions. A Missouri state senator is calling on the governor to consider funding the gas chamber as an alternative.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer sent a letter to the governor asking him to include the money in next year's budget.
In an update to the original story, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the Missouri Department of Corrections. In the lawsuit, the ACLU claimed the department violated open records laws when it failed to run over records about its plans to use the drug propofol for executions.
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