ST. LOUIS — Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Friday halted what was to have been the first execution in the United States to use the popular anesthetic propofol, following threats from the European Union to limit export of the drug if it was used to carry out the death penalty.
Nixon also ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to come up with a way to perform lethal injections without propofol, the leading anesthetic used in America’s hospitals and clinics. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s propofol is imported from Europe.
‘‘As governor, my interest is in making sure justice is served and public health is protected,’’ Nixon said in a statement. ‘‘That is why, in light of the issues that have been raised surrounding the use of propofol in executions, I have directed the Department of Corrections that the execution of Allen Nicklasson, as set for Oct. 23, will not proceed.’’
Nixon, a Democrat and staunch supporter of the death penalty, did not specifically mention the EU threat in his brief statement. Nixon was Missouri’s longtime attorney general before he was first elected governor in 2008. During his 16 years as attorney general, 59 men were executed.
The leading propofol maker, Germany-based Fresenius Kabi, and anesthesiologists had warned of a possible propofol shortage that could impact millions of Americans if any executions took place.
In a statement, Fresenius Kabi applauded Nixon’s move.
‘‘This is a decision that will be welcomed by the medical community and patients nationwide who were deeply concerned about the potential of a drug shortage,’’ said John Ducker, CEO of Fresenius Kabi USA. The company said propofol is administered about 50 million times annually in the United States.
Drug makers in recent years have stopped selling potentially lethal pharmaceuticals to prisons and corrections departments because they don’t want them used in executions. That has left the nearly three dozen death penalty states, including Missouri, scrambling for alternatives.
Missouri altered its execution protocol in April 2012 to use propofol. The drug gained some level of infamy in 2009 when pop star Michael Jackson died of a propofol overdose.
Nixon said state Attorney General Chris Koster will ask the Missouri Supreme Court to set a new execution date for Nicklasson, a convicted killer.
Nixon’s decision also leaves uncertain the execution scheduled for Nov. 20 for another convicted killer, Joseph Franklin.
In addition to concerns raised about how the EU would respond to the execution, Missouri’s decision to use propofol prompted a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly two dozen death row inmates claiming use of the unproven execution drug could result in pain and suffering for the condemned man.
Koster, a Democrat, and Republican Missouri state Senator Kurt Schaefer have suggested that if the state can’t execute by lethal injection it consider going back to the gas chamber, which it hasn’t used since the 1960s.
Corrections spokesman David Owen said Wednesday that Missouri had a remaining supply of propofol, all of it domestically made. But Fresenius Kabi spokesman Matt Kuhn said even the use of domestically produced propofol in an execution could prompt the EU to impose export controls.
‘As governor, my interest is in making sure justice is served and public health is protected.’Governor Jay Nixon
Nicklasson was convicted of the 1994 killing of Excelsior Springs businessman Richard Drummond, who stopped to help when a car used by Nicklasson and two others broke down on Interstate 70 in central Missouri.
Franklin, a drifter from Alabama, was convicted in the 1977 sniper shooting of Gerald Gordon as a crowd dispersed from a bar mitzvah in suburban St. Louis. Two others were wounded.