Spanish police investigate online purchases of euthanasia drug from US

Some seriously ill patients who managed to get hold of pentobarbital are now part of an international probe into the sale of a sedative that can be lethal in high doses

Oriol Güell
Pentobarbital, which is used for assisted suicide.
Pentobarbital, which is used for assisted suicide.B. C.

The Spanish National Police are investigating dozens of people who made online purchases of pentobarbital, a barbiturate used by seriously ill people to end to their life through euthanasia. The dignified death association Derecho a Morir Dignamente (DMD) has sent its members a document, to which EL PAÍS has had access, explaining that around 20 people have approached the entity to express concern after “having received a visit from the National Police to ask them about the purchase [of the drug].”

Police sources have confirmed this investigation, which was described as still in a preliminary phase. The online purchase of this kind of drug breaches current regulations in Spain. But in the absence of a law to regulate euthanasia, DMD considers it a “last resort” for patients. Experts think it’s very unlikely that these people will face criminal prosecution if the product was for self-consumption.

It is no longer marketed in Spain for human consumption but for veterinary use only Antonio Marcos, Spanish Society of Hospital Pharmaceutical Products

Buyers are the last link in a major investigation that began last July in the United States, which “extends to several countries and is complex,” according to the Spanish Health Ministry, which is is also aware of the case. Last October, the French Gendarmerie launched an operation with 300 agents who seized 134 bottles of pentobarbital in the homes of patients with ties to pro-euthanasia organizations, local media reported.

According to information provided at the time by the French authorities, the US initiated the investigations after arresting a person who was selling the medicine on the internet. Officers seized lists with the personal data of buyers, which made it possible to locate them.

Pentobarbital, or pentobarbitone, is a barbiturate used in the past as a sedative and hypnotic drug, although it has been replaced by new benzodiazepines that are safer. José Antonio Marcos, from the Spanish Society of Hospital Pharmaceutical Products (SEFH), highlights that the drug “acts as a central nervous system depressant” and that “it is no longer marketed in Spain for human consumption but for veterinary use only.”

In countries where euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal or has been decriminalized, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, the drug is used for this purpose. In the US it is administered to prisoners who have been sentenced to death.

€600 a bottle

María (an assumed name) is 34 and lives on the Mediterranean coast. For the last two decades she has been suffering from “a neurodegenerative disease” that has confined her to a wheelchair. “Because of my state, I want to be informed of the options that I might have to face in the future. I chose pentobarbital because, if the time comes to use it, it is an effective and painless drug." María acquired a bottle online “for €600” containing 6.5 grams of the barbiturate. “I was surprised that when the packet arrived it wasn’t the mailman who came to the door but the police,” she says.

I chose pentobarbital because, if the time comes to use it, it is an effective and painless drug Maria, who suffers from a neurodegenerative disease

“We have around 20 cases like this. People are scared,” explain sources from the DMD association. The people under investigation are those who purchased the drug from the provider (who is now in custody) between “mid-2018 and mid-2019,” according to this entity. The document assures buyers that “they have not committed any crime” and that “they are not obliged to hand over the product until a judge requests it.” The statement continues that “lawyers have confirmed to us that acquiring this drug and keeping it at home are both unpunishable acts.”

Nuria Amarilla, director of the health law consultancy Eupharlaw, says: “If we focus on irregular acquisition, it is very unlikely that buyers will be involved in criminal proceedings. The important thing for criminal law is who provided it illegally.”

In Spain, only authorized pharmacies are allowed to sell over-the-counter medicines online. “We will have to look at them on a case-by-case basis. It is not the same to buy a bottle and keep it at home, or to buy several in order to resell them or distribute them among people who wish to die. Whoever buys a single unit for possible future self-consumption may have committed an administrative infraction, but they will hardly be charged with a crime,” says Amarilla.

The Health Ministry warns that “the purchase of medicines outside the established channels poses a very significant health risk. Often the medicines are of inadequate quality, they are counterfeit drugs or they have been stored or transported in a way that affects their quality," concludes the ministry.

With additional reporting by Patricia Ortega Dolz.

English version by Alicia Kember.

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