The Apothecary Shoppe

Jenny Diski

Nembutal, an old friend of mine from other days, turns out to be pentobarbital, US executioners' drug of choice for lethal injections. Now a problem has arisen. The licensed manufacturer refuses to allow it to be sold for that use, and so it comes about that the state of Missouri, which has an inmate, Michael Taylor, on death row waiting to be dispatched this month, has no stocks to hand and can't get the wherewithal. Unable to source the real thing, they looked around for someone to cook it up for them. Homemade pentobarbital can apparently give you a very nasty death – on top of the already nasty death you get from judicial execution. In a recently recorded use of it, the victim's heart continued to beat for ten minutes after he had stopped breathing; last month another recipient of such an injection said after 20 seconds: 'I feel my whole body burning.'

The Missouri authorities found a compounding pharmacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was allegedly prepared to make and provide pentobarbital in time for the 26 February execution date. Michael Taylor's lawyers have filed a case against The Apothecary Shoppe of Tulsa to stop it from providing the drug, using evidence of what happened in previous cases. In the meantime, The Apothecary Shoppe (motto: 'The most important thing we did today was fill your prescription') has agreed not to make or sell any of it to the Missouri department of corrections for Taylor's execution, while they await judgment.

We know it's a funny world that executes people for their crimes and then tries its best to execute them nicely – though if that doesn't work, not so nicely will apparently do. Taylor pleaded guilty to the abduction, raping and stabbing to death of a 15-year-old girl. I suppose there are many who would say, here as well as in the US, that he deserves to die, and some that he deserves to die painfully. I think it's a bad idea for the state to be killing anyone, and coldly, judicially killing the guilty is not morally better than flying drones over and killing the innocent.

But The Apothecary Shoppe of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for god's sake. What is there about this story that doesn't tell us that the law, the world, is at times psychotic? It's right that we should be obliged to picture the olde, faux-medieval shoppe in Main Street, New World, with its chymist preparing to get out his pestle and mortar to grind his ingredients, and dusting down the alembic in readiness to distil and transmute his base powders and potions into the gold of lethal injection – the panacea, the universal solvent, the aqua vitae, water of life. Thank you, Missouri, Oklahoma, Main Street, how clear you make everything.


  • 19 February 2014 at 3:54pm
    Julius Beezer says:
    Swearers of the Hippocratic Oath undertake to "give no deadly medicine to any one." And as you say, the reason why the Missourians are having to turn to that Okie outfit is that the principal reputable supplier of pentobarbital, Lundbeck, an ethical pharmaceutical company headquartered in Denmark, is taking its responsibilities seriously, and refusing to collaborate with the death penalty.

    There are plenty of doctors whose distaste for the perversion of medical science that is state murder by injection is only heightened by their knowledge of ethics. Though the medieval imagery of sorcerer and alembic is doubtless irresistible to the literary mind, much has gone on since. Perhaps foregrounding the ethics would have helped to diminish your sense that this state of affairs is somehow "psychotic"?

    Doctors are a minority after all: there's no particular reason to suppose that everyone shares their values; and every reason to stymie barbarians who would use the profession's savoir-faire for nefarious ends.