In their role as trusted health professionals, pharmacists are faced with a daunting array of ethical challenges unique to their profession. As gatekeepers of drugs that give and take life, their responsibility to the community is enormous. Most pharmacists put their customers’ health and well-being above profits, but some do not. When profits become the primary concern in pharmacy, the results can be tragic.

Toxic Pharmacist

In "The New York Times” story “Toxic Pharmacist,” writer Robert Draper outlines the case of Robert Courtney, the Kansas City, Missouri, pharmacist convicted in 2002 of diluting and selling cancer drugs to his customers at Research Medical Tower Pharmacy. Courtney, who admitted to diluting the drugs of thousands of patients over a nine-year period and continuing to defraud his customers even after amassing nearly $20 million, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and as Draper put it, forever “consigned to freakdom” in the history of pharmacology. When asked at trial why he did it, Courtney replied ''I don't know why I did this.''

Execution Drugs and National Ethics

Nature News tells the story of the UK pharmacy, Dream Pharma, which in 2011 sold vials of a drug used in American executions to the states of California and Arizona. After learning of the transactions, the British government initiated a ban on all further exports of the drug — sodium thiopental — to the United States. “Our government is completely against capital punishment,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the agency that launched the ban. The unusual drug sale was the result of an international shortage of sodium thiopental, which causes unconsciousness and is the first drug administered in the “cocktail” of lethal injection drugs.

First-Degree Murder

At first, pharmacist Jerome Ersland was hailed as a hero for defending himself and other patrons during an attempted armed robbery of cash and drugs at his Oklahoma City pharmacy in 2009. However, upon examination of the pharmacy’s surveillance video, it was clear that Ersland, who had shot and disabled one of the robbers, methodically grabbed another weapon, loaded it and pumped five more shots into the incapacitated 16-year-old attempted robber. The May 2011 first-degree murder conviction of Ersland has become the subject of heated controversy in Oklahoma City between people who believe Ersland acted heroically and those who think his actions amounted to cold-blooded execution.

Worthless Remedies

Physician Stephen Barrett believes pharmacists — most notably, national chain pharmacies — have put profits over patient health in their sales and marketing of worthless dietary supplements and “natural” health products. Citing the trade publication “Natural Pharmacist,” which boasts of the large profit margins and 100 percent mark-ups of natural products, Barrett says pharmacies that aggressively market these products have failed in the ethical challenge posed by the conflict of interest inherent in pharmacy between duty to patients and raising the bottom line.