The state of Arkansas executed two death row inmates Monday night, the first double execution in the United States since 2000. Among the many people all over the country opposed to the killings was 80-year-old Armin Walser, the retired Swiss chemist who first synthesized one of the key drugs Arkansas used in the lethal injections.
While working for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey in 1974, Walser invented midazolam as a safer, more comfortable sedation alternative to injectable Valium. Today the drug is listed on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines needed in a health system because of its utility in sedating patients before medical procedures. But it is also the first drug administered during the three-drug protocol Arkansas and many other states use to conduct lethal injections.
Midazolam is meant to sedate the prisoner prior to the injection first of vecuronium bromide, which causes paralysis, and then potassium chloride, which stops the heart. To date, midazolam has been used in 21 executions in the United States, including botched killings in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Alabama.
Arkansas and other states that conduct lethal injections have had a hard time getting access to midazolam since most pharmaceutical companies that distribute the drug refuse to allow it to be used in executions. Gov. Asa Hutchinson had planned to execute eight death row inmates in 11 days before the state’s current supply of midazolam expired at the end of April. So far, four of the eight scheduled executions have been stayed by courts, three executions have been carried out, and one is scheduled for Thursday.
We asked Walser, who retired in 1994, what he thinks about his drug being used to kill. (The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What was midazolam originally intended for?
Armin Walser: There were some difficulties with injectable Valium because it’s not water-soluble by itself, and the formulations they tried had some problems at the injection site that precipitated and caused pain…. So we were happy to find midazolam. They thought it would be perfect for sedation before anesthesia or for sedation for minor procedures; dentists, I think, like to use it also. And it was used on myself when I had a colonoscopy later in life and I found it very convenient. Very good.
Do you consider it to be the biggest success of your career?
Oh, well, midazolam was maybe the most successful venture of my chemist career. Not every medicinal chemist is in the situation to bring a drug to the market.
How is midazolam supposed to be used today? It’s used as a sedative, not an anesthetic, correct?
Yeah. It is a sedative, like, it is similar to Valium…. In Europe, it was also introduced as a sleeping aid, as a hypnotic, and many people use this also on airplanes to get some sleep. So, it’s a short-acting oral sleeping aid as well, but it was never introduced in the U.S. as an oral form.
When did you find out that the drug was being used in executions?
For the use of the execution drug, I was called I think about two years ago from a reporter from Oklahoma, and she told me that they [are] thinking of using or they [were] using midazolam for execution or sedation before execution. And, of course, I was surprised, and I was not pleased, because if your drug is used for executions, it’s not a successful drug. But the doctors, I guess, can do with it what they want to do [but] any drug company doesn’t want their drug to be used for pre-execution. And I don’t see why they couldn’t use Valium or triazolam or anything else for that purpose.
How did you feel when you found out?
I was disappointed. I did not work on the drug to kill people. On the contrary, it’s to help them. I didn’t raise a campaign to stop using midazolam, that’s not my job. But I was pleased to know that the company that introduced it was fighting against its use as a sedative for execution. They should do away with executions, anyway. I mean, there are many countries [that] don’t have life [sentences] or executions. And they’re doing all right, as far as the law is concerned and all.
The Arkansas executions were expedited because there’s an expiration date on the state’s supply of midazolam. Can you explain what that means exactly?
Well, I don’t know how long those solutions they prepare… can be kept without any changes. So I guess expiration date means after a certain time, maybe a year or half a year, some of the integrity of the drug is lost. And of course in a case for execution, you don’t want to use any drug that is expired. I’m sure it’s still good, but it’s not 100 percent, maybe just 98 percent.
Do you think that pharmaceutical companies need to be stricter about their distribution so that this doesn’t happen again?
I don’t know why they choose midazolam. I mean, this is a mystery. Why don’t they use Valium, which is an older drug and veterinary medicine uses it? Why they switched to midazolam, I have no idea. Maybe it’s a patent — of course these expire so they can use it, when they can get it on the market somewhere. This just happened to me, and I’m sorry that they use it.